Mystery Shopper: BikeBiz's man of mystery visits Ashford, Kent

Flat Out BMX, Halfords, Velo Refined, Hamstreet Cycles and Sports Direct all put to the test
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Mystery Shopper’s UK tour ground to a bit of a halt in Ashford thanks to shop closures and missing staff. Halfords came out top of the pile and that’s despite four staff barricading themselves behind a tiny counter…

Flat Out BMX : 2/5
I'm told Flat Out is a fairly new operation and my guess is it's yet to receive the majority of its stock. As a result of virtually empty floor and barely occupied wall space, Flat Out’s shop seemed larger than it actually was.
At the opposing end of the shop to the entrance was an assistant who gave me a nod before returning to his laptop. I browsed for a short while before asking a semi-technical query about a set of pedals requiring an answer that only a niche store such as this would likely know. The answer, in all fairness, was well addressed, though was followed with the strong dismissal of all plastic pedals as 'rubbish'. Flat Out only had one pair of metal pedals in stock, the rest were plastic.
Though attentive enough when questions were posed, it was difficult to draw the assistant's attention away from the laptop and toward customers. Perhaps I arrived while he was mid order. Whatever it was on the screen, he was fascinated.
As I left the store the assistant followed, lit a cigarette on the doorstep and stood about making it very hard for paparazzi to snap the storefront, or for any customers to enter without getting a lungfull.

Halfords : 4/5
Nearing full marks is perhaps generous for this branch, for which just one of four staff squeezed behind the counter was brave enough to assist. As is often the case in Halfords, the younger staff did their best to avoid coming from behind the till area, leaving the most senior of the bunch to help. As expected and experienced previously, this particular staffer was fantastic.
This assistant couldn't have done much more to sell me a bike, covering aftercare, warranty, accessory add-ons, multiple bikes, as well as discussing advanced cycling and performance gear.
Though I found his technical knowledge a little unbalanced in places, for the most part advice was solid and would certainly see the typical Halfords customer right in their purchase.
Clever point of display is always a bonus and this branch was innovative in the way it displayed lighting accessories, offering a try-before-you buy testing station, among other things.
If I were to have relied on being seen on the shop, as I typically would in an independent store, this visit would have gone ungraded.

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Velo Refined : U
Dear Mr Velo Refined, if you're reading, I'm typing this on board a ferry to nowhere in particular thanks to the proceeds from selling your bikes.
Okay, perhaps that's a lie, but the thought had crossed the mind of Mystery Shopper's evil alter-ego. It would have been so easy to lift your entire high-end stock, which I'd estimate to be in the region of 20 to 30 thousand pounds.
Let me set the scene. I enter a quiet industrial unit, no one's around aside from a lone mechanic from the neighbouring garage. He's busy playing with a rather nice Ferrari as I enter your empty showroom.
I spend five minutes inside unaccompanied. Nothing appears to be locked to the wall fixtures. At the very least there's a pair of wheels worth a few grand to be had. Looks like a few unboxed deliveries laying around on the table too.
In reality, these thoughts didn't even cross Mystery Shopper's mind and that lone mechanic next door helpfully advised that you're normally available by appointment only.
Let us know what time you are (not) around and I'll book in...

Hamstreet Cycles : 3/5
Noting prior to my entry that Hamstreet Cycles was a type of hardware and cycle shop hybrid, I had to alter my brief a little, opting out of mentioning the cross country bike sought elsewhere in favour of a bit of a quiz on a cheap reconditioned full suspension bike in the window.
Soon after I'd uttered the words 'built to last' the assistant gave said window occupying bike a glance before suggesting that I pop back in a week's time when he'd taken stock of a few more better specced models.
Advising that any repair work could be carried out in store, the assistant seemed keen to hold off selling me just any bike, honestly informing me that the bikes he had in stock may not last too long on trail excursions.
In terms of representation of a business, the assistant here was the day’s best, showing attention to detail, asking the right questions of me and ultimately being a thoroughly nice chap.
The store did appear poorly presented, both on the outside and inside. With a lick of paint and a tidy up inside, the shop would surely have room for a more focused line of bikes.

Sports Direct 3/5
Going in search of Ashford's town centre 'cyclery' Mystery Shopper found nothing but a closed store and a worn sign above to indicate that Ashford no longer has a central bicycle store.
Venturing into Sports Direct in the hope someone within may have an inkling of a where the local bike shop had gone, or whether there was another in town, an assistant advised that she knew of none, though asked if she could help. Put on the spot, but intruiged by someone in Sports Direct uniform openly seeking to help, I queried whether the store had any jerseys suitable for cycling.
Being led through to a section of vest tops and basketball style jerseys I felt as though past dismissals of the chain as virtually useless at customer service were a little rough. I was reminded that representation on the shop floor is very important, as demonstrated earlier in Halfords by one star employee surrounded by three others reluctant to do their job.

Summary
Ashford proved to be very difficult to draw conclusions on with many mitigating factors to take into account on the majority of visits.
Should I mark down Flat Out for being focused on his laptop? Perhaps I entered while the assistant was deep into some accounting. On the other hand, was he on YouTube and simply not fussed about customers?
How do you mark a store that has no representation? Operating on an appointment only basis Velo Refined is as 'high-end' a bicycle business as they come. Presumably the owner is an expert in his field, though having found no details of the need to book on the firm’s home page, are all the basics of business covered? The home page features a 'now open' icon. Click the 'about us' tab and it's a different story.
Halfords and Sports Direct demonstrated that one excellent employee is worth the whole bundle of average workers.

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Trek UK I Milton Keynes I Competitive Salary I Date Published Wednesday 20th March 2018