Think Rutland Cycling and you will likely conjure up images of families riding bikes around a body of water in the sunshine and while that’s not wholly inaccurate, the retailer is now a lot more besides – thanks to what has been a huge year for the family business.
The retailer firm started out as a simple hire outlet on the banks of Rutland Water in the ‘80s, but Rutland Cycling last year opened its first store further afield – in Peterborough – and then went and acquired Cambridge’s four-store Station Cycles, doubling its store portfolio and taking the total up to nine.
“We’ll have ten by Easter,” reveals Rutland Cycling managing director David Middlemiss. That’s right, instead of taking it easy in 2016 – after that year of expansion, the online relaunch and rebranding – the firm is setting up another new store, this time in its new locality of Cambridge, at the train station as part of the transport hub’s overhaul, where Rutland will operate a retail store, hire outlet and workshop.
“Station Cycles is already a successful business and we really respect it and want to build on it. We will learn from what they do well and vice versa.
“Our model will work well there, but Cambridge is a bit different, a bit more urban than we usually are. Brompton are new to us.
“The new station store is another new format for us, but we’ll do a great job. We can use it for click and collect and we have a near network of stores to get product to and from.”
Today BikeBiz is meeting Middlemiss at the new Peterborough store. Roughly five years in the making, it’s 9,000 square feet of purpose-built retail, set over two floors in Ferry Meadows Country Park and near a body of water. So far, so Rutland Cycling? Almost: The store is also just a few miles outside the city so has a commuter element, an area Rutland will be getting to grips with to a bigger degree than ever, thanks to the new stores over in Cambridge.
All this expansion has presented a conundrum for the family firm: How can you call a store ‘Rutland Cycling’ when it’s dozens of miles away from Rutland Water? Do you just ‘do a Cotswold Outdoors’ and not worry about it? Or do you do something else? The latter – the retailer has opted for a neat ‘Rutland Cycling at Peterborough’ a format the rest of the store network will use.
Rutland Cycling was approached by the Nene Park Trust, which wanted to grow cycling as an activity in Ferry Meadows Country Park after seeing how Rutland Water was performing.
The original building in the park was held by a golf company and too small for purpose. In the space of a year, the site was demolished and opened for the grand launch on October 24th 2015, with Tracey Moseley and Magnus Backstedt officially opening the store.
“We specced it out,” MD Middlemiss tells BikeBiz. “It’s actually 10,000 square feet over two floors, with a 1,000 sq ft unit for golf behind the store – there’s two courses in the park.
“It’s the first time that we’ve built a shop from scratch with the fresh new branding. We worked hard on getting our branding in the shop and balancing that with the bike labels that we want to shout about. There’s no perfect answer to it. My wife Sally is head of online and marketing and has worked on that with the Whiteroom Agency, who put together the Giant stores.”
Famously, Rutland Cycling likes a packed events calendar and the new Peterborough store has carried that through. “We’ve got maintenance classes, workshop seminars, evening events, late opening, women-only seminars, nutrition nights, Breeze rides with our in-house Breeze champion…”
There’s also a coffee bar built into the store, with tables and seating that can be easily whisked out of the way for those evening classes when need, but “it’s not a café,” Middlemiss stresses.
“Clubs use it. We’ve got a big free car park and free coffee – that isn’t a bad start for a cycle club. We’re trying to move beyond that classic club relationship with shops, where they get offered a discount and that’s about it. We can link them up with brands and give them privileged access to them. We can say to them, you can come and speak to the guys from Trek yourself, you can access new products like this. It’s relatively low maintenance for us to offer.”
The shop is close to the Peterborough Arena and Showground – the hub for the Tour of Cambridge which Rutland got stuck into for its 2015 debut. Middlemiss explains: “The Tour of Cambridge was an exciting event and really well organised. There were free workshops, demo bikes and we ran the TT static bikes. Paligap supplied most of the static bikes and it was super busy – we had 620 people on the bikes.”
Rutland also ran a big MTB demo in November, which saw 300 riders try out new year models.
“There was a lot of interest in plus sized tyres. We had great brands there and they all brought someone along.
“We range all the brands in store and took on Bianchi and Cannondale this year.”
Middlemiss says the Peterborough store will be making room for e-bikes. “It’s a big opportunity for 2016, which is a big positive when other sectors have been so challenged! There is a question over electric bikes, though. Who will do it? It’s about establishing yourself as the local e-bike retailer.
“It’s like the womens market. You can’t just bung a couple of bikes in and hope for the best. You have to commit to it.
“The womens market has grown for us. It’s a big chunk of sales and growing. It’s strong at the Giant store too – Liv is great. You need the format to support it. It’s been successful and we’ve dedicated more space to it here. It’s a smaller chunk of sales, ultimately, but it is showing growth.”
There’s a sub-conscious line of reasoning to serving the female market too, argues Middlemiss: “Many male purchases are endorsed by women, so to create an environment where women are looked after too or attractive to everyone is a good idea.”
“You need women in the team, with rides and seminars aimed at women. We’ve had females as key members of our staff for three years.” Rutland’s Grafham store is heading up by women. “It would be great to see more women technicians,” he rues. “It’s hard to recruit women because of the scarcity in the trade.”
Some retail gurus have predicted that the shopping experience will become more important than ever in 2016. “If you do a good job for the customer you will do well. So long as they get excellent customer service then they will enjoy coming into the store. You can earn their trust by doing a great job and then they are less likely to come in and haggle all the time.
“Customer experience has always been a priority and you must find new ways of doing it, but essentially the same. It’s as old as the hills and fundamentally about the same key things.
“You have to offer value, yes, but it’s also about putting people on bikes and them having a good time. They want to get involved in cycling, they want to engage with the product – customers can come along to MTB demo days. We will continue to offer demos, events – we’re committed to that format.”
The retailer said it has worked hard on recruiting: “We have changed the staffing structure,” the MD explains to BikeBiz. “We have a store manager but then we have MTB ambassadors, road ambassadors, women ambassadors and they deputise the store manager. They effectively lead their part of the store. The MTB guys can sell a road bike, of course, but they specialise.
“Recruitment is very important and a challenge. We rely on other people to deliver and make our business work. We really rely on the calibre of the people. Thankfully we’ve had real success in recruiting. If you don’t have the team the rest of it falls apart.”
Training has been key to the firm’s success and retention of staff, Middlemiss believes, going beyond the usual for the bike trade.
“We provide coaching for store managers. We input to the training, but it is run by a third party outside the bike industry. You need managers that are empowered, so often owners don’t do this.”
“I understand some retailers are hesitant to train staff because they might leave and you’ll lose the investment, but if you don’t invest in them and give them incentives to stay they will leave. It is our job to make the workplace more attractive and you can grow when your people are really good.”
BikeBiz is introduced to a recent recruit attracted all the way from Johannesburg, having seen the job ad on BikeBiz (of course). After a successful interview over Skype, the new recruit came over into temporary accommodation provided by the retailer. “If you’re good, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Despite all the growth, Rutland is a family business aware that – from the outside – it is starting to sound more like a big corporation.
“We were really proud to win a Family Business Award. It really matters to us. We want Rutland Cycling to be the kind of business where we want to shop. We may be a chain, but we really care if there is an issue. It’s a struggle to get it right as you expand, but it’s our aim.”
With another store opening imminently at Cambridge Station, you might think the retailer is going to sit back in 2016. Not so, MD David Middlemiss tells BikeBiz: “We’re interested in acquisition and building new sites – taking our core elements to other places.”