Mystery Shopper: Rochester and Gillingham's retailers grilled

This time it's not a Dutch crusade sailing up the Medway. Enter BikeBiz's man of mystery...
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This time it’s not a Dutch crusade infiltrating these two River Medway neighbouring towns. In fact, it’s something far more frightening – BikeBiz’s Mystery Shopper. Like the Flying Dutchman, our man of mystery silently sailed both choppy tides and calmer waters in search of his perfect bicycle…

Cycle King

With plenty of on street parking, as well as a customer car park, this Cycle King branch practically begs the passer by's attention.
Though the first few minutes of my visit were wasted discussing a bike below my later-to-be-asked budget, the two assistants offering me advice were equally attentive when listening to my brief and had multiple recommendations for my consideration indicating they knew their stock inside out.
It was good to see that despite Christmas sales the retailer stuck firm to its prices, though did offer a some flexibility if I decided to modify the bike to better suit my needs. Further to this I was informed of a brand that is exclusive to Cycle King, though likely only available for a limited time thanks to its value when compared to mainstream brands – something emphasised heavily. On the back of this a deposit was asked of me "ahead of a likely Christmas rush."
By far the best of the Cycle King's on BikeBiz's ongoing UK tour.

Geoff Wiles Cycles

First impressions here were very strong. Being a Cube stockist, Geoff Wiles store had placed some very eye-catching, yet surprisingly affordable models right by the front door. You couldn't miss them and could be forgiven for thinking the racey-looking models to be well outside the average budget.
Shortly after entering, an assistant was asking all the right questions – my budget, the likely use of my bike and 'would I consider spending a little more to gain a lot more bike for my money?'
My quoted budget sat at the bottom of the stocked Cube line, so comparing models proved a simple task for the assistant who covered more or less everything aside from warranty and service, of which the Cube system is quite unique and worth a mention.
Alternative models were offered, but enthused recommendations had already been made, as well as upgrades to the bike offered and explained. I left with a catalogue to review.

Halfords

Using the two-floor layout very effectively, Halfords had placed a few key interest models on the lower floor to draw Christmas custom. Upstairs, the majority of bikes were found as well as a sole staff member, who appeared to be a cyclist himself given his wealth of knowledge.
Encouragingly, the assistant didn't need much encouragement to leave his desk position as is often the case in many branches. Happily guiding me through each and every model relevant to my brief, the assistant seemed enthused by the idea of customising a bike to meet my exact needs – quoted as "a bike that's quick on the roads, but capable of light off-road use."
As such, the assistant lead me over to the tyre rack where he detailed tyre treads, widths and rolling resistances. All of this information proved helpful and was bolstered by the suggestion that Halfords would gladly switch the tyres free of charge if the bike and replacements were purchased there.
The retail giant's service cover was also detailed, as well as a 'Bike Care Plan' in which for a one off fee my labour charges would be covered for a year.

Bikes Bikes Bikes

This could be a personal thing, but Mystery Shopper sees bikes on the street as a little risky given the amount of bikes that have gone missing of late. This retailer, however, used it to full-effect and, granted, it did appear to catch passer-by attention.
Inside I was greeted immediately, though discussion kicked off focused on bikes for a budget below what I would have stated, if asked.
Hinting at having more cash to spend, attention turned to another brand, which could serve well as an alternative, but didn't pack as much value for money as the Claud Butler with a carbon fork that sat just above my budget.
With emphasis largely on the fork, it was explained that carbon would offer a more forgiving ride and furthermore that suspension in this price bracket wouldn't be fantastic.
All sound advice, but Mystery Shopper felt that some key aspects of the two highlighted bike's spec were overlooked in the comparison.

Sports Direct

Spying a selection of bikes tucked inside the ground floor of the High Street Sports Direct, Mystery Shopper curiously approached.
Though on the cheaper side, a few in the small line up were relevant to my sought after hybrid style bike. Up the escalator I went into the swathes of poorly organised sports equipment. It was as I hit the top of the escalator that I was reminded why anyone serious about any sport would avoid the store. Similarly to past experiences, the music choice was less than family friendly and a reason to leave by itself.
Persevering was a bad call. Staff needed to be chased around the store for a little attention. One I managed to track down pointed to another who 'knew more about bikes'. He knew what was in stock at least, but simply suggested I go take a look downstairs and check it out for myself. Downstairs I went and off into the night.

Summary

If the Dutch came in search of great bicycle service back in 1667, largely they would have been pleased, at least until they mounted 'ye old stairway to hell' found at Sports Direct. Both Halfords and Cycle King produced very convincing pitches. Each displayed knowledge, enthusiasm and most important of all, the ability to listen to a brief and make decisions on which bikes to present, followed up by back-up support info.
I'd like to say that independent store Geoff Wiles Cycles edged it over these two, but to the uneducated consumer, the two chains would most likely have made a sale. Even with a firm knowledge of bikes and build quality I felt both chains offered some great value for money bikes given my budget.

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