Mystery Shopper visits Nottingham

How did the independents fair against the likes of Halfords and Evans?
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In the past chain stores have surprised Mystery Shopper with some surprisingly strong performances, challenging the notion that personal service doesn’t exist within larger companies. Would that be the case in city with as strong a heritage of independent cycle business as Nottingham? Mystery Shopper does the rounds…

Note: Regretably, BikeBiz missed one of the nation's oldest independent's during our stay in Nottingham, Bunney's Bikes, our apologies to them - we're sure they would have been a great visit.

Freewheel
It's always encouraging to be met within a minute or so of entering a store and Freewheel’s female assistant came forward quickly as her colleagues handled other trade.
Giving the assistant a wide budget of between £400 and £800 to work with, I was pleased to be sold the advantages of investing in a bike and its longevity – all justified with reasons aside from simply the weight.
Pointing to a Trek on sale from £900 to just a shade under my upper budget limit, she began to discuss the vibration dampening properties of a carbon fork specced at this price. Further to this, it was explained that at the lower end of my budget I'd get Shimano's unbranded groupsets, which would be of a lower quality in both performance and wear life.
I left with a business card with the bike's model penned on the back, which some may go on to use as a tool to buy online. However considering the discounted price and extremely strong sales pitch an impulse buy, or the chances of my return would have been greatly improved.

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Evans Cycles
Located on a busy street, this branch of Evans had high footfall at the time of our visit, forcing Mystery Shopper to stalk another customer around the store.
With a stroke of luck, the genuine customer was in the market for a road bike, similar to the one sought by Mystery Shopper in every way aside from the price. Coming in with a budget of around £2,000 the customer was immediately led to the shop floor computer to browse the store's website. Odd, considering the available stock in store. Nonetheless the eavesdropping continued. Demonstrating to the customer the width of Evans' stock, the assistant dropped in further questions on intended use and mileage, seemingly changing his recommendations based on each answer received.
Perhaps a little too much time was spent in front of the screen, but the customer didn't seem to mind. It's not the first time I've witnessed Evans' staff rely on the luxury of shop floor computers to sell bikes. It does, however, neglect the best bit of introducing a customer to a bike – the touch and feel that so often bonds a prospective buyer to a purchase.

Halfords
Not the most typical layout for a Halfords, this store was situated on a busy road leading into Nottingham and despite a dedicated autocentre just down the road, seemed to be catching plenty of trade from petrolheads with modified cars parked at funny angles outside. Inside the theme continued with the car department busy.
In the bike area, however, an idle salesman walked past me twice in the same spot without making any attempt to offer assistance. I could hear customers enjoying a detailed chat with an assistant in the car accessories area so went in search of assistance here.
As feared, when we'd arrived at a selection of Boardman and Carrera road bikes, the knowledge of the nitty gritty thinned. This isn't to say the assistant was defeated though, as he produced knowledge of Halfords' aftercare packages and value for money aspects on the higher priced Boardman, steering me toward the higher price models in the process.
This pitch may not have sold to the enthusiast rider, but to anyone looking solely for value for money it might have done the trick.

Langdale Lightweights
Blowing my chances of a full test of this store's capabilities with a quoted budget of £800, Mystery Shopper thought he'd have to think on his feet to keep this one going. Langdale specialises in the exotic and super high-end road scene and thus my price point wasn't catered for given that no reconditioned bikes were currently in stock. That didn't, however, stop the sole staff member trying to assist. Asking how urgently I'd need the bike, she offered to take my name and number in order to 'look around for something suitable for me'.
As I mentioned that my current research of a bike had been internet based, I was told to be wary of bikes bought online, advice that was justified by the need for a proper sizing up and test ride experience.
After some discussion, especially considering the increasingly slim chances I'd be able to hand over cash here, a shop a few miles away was mentioned, followed up with "if you don't have any luck, check back here and we'll see what we can do."
Brilliantly helpful, despite my request falling outside Langdale's niche.

Rock'n Roll Bikes
Back in retail following five years online, Rock'n'Roll bikes is fairly new to the Nottingham scene.
The first notable difference between this store and many others is the ‘thinking outside the box’ interior design. The window display was funky enough, but go inside and you'll be greeted with 'jail bars', presumably installed to provide enough space for customers to slip in and out, but prevent any bikes going missing.
Immediately greeted on the shop floor, the salesman cleverly tempted my investment upwards, pointing out the cost of upgrading a bike piece by piece, bolsetering this by using a bike at £1,000 to emphasise the value for money of a strong investment, should I become an enthusiast.
The end of year discounts were evident on many of the bikes, but a 'sweetener' was offered should I choose to return and buy here. The details of this deal were withheld until that date, however. Intruiging.
Forme was sold primarily on its value for money over competitors, even ahead of the shop's own Guess brand. The pitch was backed up by bigging up bike designer Adam Biggs, himself a professional rider.



Summary
Person to person interaction can't be beaten, even with the fancy shop floor gadgetary available to Evan's staff. Ultimately, the assistant's role is to find the best bike for their customer's needs and while this may have been achieved in some form by Evans' website, the independent stores created a desire to impulse purchase, or place a deposit there and then.
I was convinced Freewheel was worthy of the star store award throughout the day, but for me, new kids on the block Rock'n'Roll bikes matched the comprehensive knowledge of Freewheel and had the edge when it came to closing the sale.

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