Mystery Shopper grills Kent's retailers

Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells were the focus of our store tour. One stood head and shoulders above the rest...
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Between figuring out which of Kent’s similar sounding boroughs he was in and peeling parking fines off the ‘mystery machine’, Mystery Shopper found a diamond in the one of the roughest incognito town tours featured to date. It sure as heck wasn’t Sports Direct, so which of the Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells retailers almost made the visit worthwhile…

Halfords, Tunbridge Wells: 3/5

This was Mystery Shopper’s first encounter with a single floor layout Halfords store, of which space was divided by 60/40 for car accessories to bikes, respectively.
With 20 per cent discounts on some Boardman builds, customers could bag themselves a very strong value for money bike deal. Problem is, a staff member is needed to make a sale and those were certainly thin on the ground in this store.
However, a redeeming quality was that all bikes had display tags on, as well as additional cards displaying offers on Halfords add-on maintenance policies. Some sale models were tagged with ‘care plan’ bundles thrown in as an extra incentive for a sale. As an impartial observer, this left me thinking that Halfords would not be out of the running for my cash, despite the fact one young staff member strutted right on by when I signalled for assistance.
Finally, this store had made good use of point of display units, elevating one bike above the rest and flagging up the need for accessories such as a helmet and lock with each purchase.

Sports Direct: 2/5

Mystery Shopper hadn’t planned to visit Sports Direct, in fact, the sports chain can, at worst, be on par with Justin Bieber movies and things like the Black Death in terms of desired avoidance.
Nonetheless, having been driving around in circles, getting lost thanks to multiple inaccurate Google listings for bike shops, I was left with little choice but to visit the store, which can be a bit of a lottery if you’re looking for a bicycle.
On this particular occasion no bikes were found in store, but rather than walking out, I thought it best to give staff a chance to sell me some gloves suitable for cycling. I tracked down a staff member and asked if such gloves were stocked. This was followed by being led to the appropriate section, which for a second, seemed like I might be about to encounter some redemption for the chain’s woeful track record in past visits. That was until the staff member handed me some goalkeeping gloves, I kid you not. Unsure whether I had lost my sense of humour, or if the assistant was serious, I simply said thank you and accepted this was going to be a bad day.

Brian's Bikes: 2/5

Having seen just the one shed-based operation prior to this visit, Mystery Shopper had very little to compare Brian’s Bikes with. First impressions were that this might just be a hobbyist, repairing and selling reconditioned bikes as and when business comes along. However, venturing into the tightly packed shed I could see price tags.
The store assistant seemed almost surprised to see me and before I had made my introductions I was being offered reconditioned mountain bikes from prices as low as £50. Explaining to the assistant that I was after something more road orientated and that I would prefer the build to have some longevity, I was lead through the sea of wheels to a £200 Specialized in a fair condition. At this point I was expecting my guide to explain a bit about the bike, its working condition and what services Brian’s Bikes offers post-sale to keep me on the road. Sadly, it was up to Mystery Shopper to drive the conversation forwards.
For a business without a website, or Google listing, it was odd to find Brian’s Bikes via the new Bike Hub phone application.

Evernden Cycles: 5/5

Noting that four idle staff spotted me the moment I walked through the door of Everden, I wasn't expecting I'd be let down by service here. As such, I set expectations high with a view to testing the perhaps overstaffed store.
From behind the counter, the first of the four listened to my brief, considering carefully what my money could best achieve given the discounts available on some 2010 models ahead of the arrival of current season stock. The first recommendation came slightly above budget and was a model with an appealing discount tag.
My desire to buy this bike was further boosted by the assistant pointing to the 2011 prices, comparing the value of each. If I were to “place a deposit on this bike, I'd make a huge saving and end up with a top quality bike,” it was explained.
What's more, accessory add ons were strongly recommended with the purchase, as were panniers, which proved to me that the assistant had given proper thought to my desire to 'ditch the car and do everything via bicycle, if possible.'
I left with a business card and bookmarked catalogue.

Halfords, Tonbridge: 4/5

Yet another single-floored Halfords store, this time in neighbouring Tonbridge. The layout was again a 60/40 split, though the key difference in this visit was staff making themselves known to customers. I observed one family buying a bike for their daughter, carefully watched over by an apron-clad assistant making adjustments on the fly to best fit the bicycle to the customer. It was refreshing to see an assistant take the time to tailor the experience to the customer.
Once tweaked to the girl’s liking, a test ride around the car park was offered, which seemed like a deal clincher if the smiles on faces were anything to go by. I don’t know whether or not a sale was made in the end, though from observations the assistant certainly worked hard enough to earn one.
As with the Tunbridge Wells store, good use of display stands with add-on sale incentives were ubiquitous and the stock was diverse and well presented.


Thank goodness for Evernden Cycles. If it wasn’t for its staff and the fantastic chippy a few doors down, I think this visit might have been enough to have spurred Mystery Shopper to keep driving South until somewhere in the English Channel.
To ensure my experience is based around a typical consumer visit, I’m unable to track stores down using the BikeBiz Bible. Therefore, with Google as my primary search aid, please, retailers of Tun... Tonbridge, whatever your similar sounding towns are called, update your listings. I ended up on a farm looking for one store. Nightmare.
Sports Direct finally gets off rock bottom scoring this month, despite selling no bikes at all. The reason for this? A staff member didn’t run away from me for once! Have you ever tried cycling in goalie gloves? It’s not so bad, you know...

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