Milton Keynes-based IBD Corley Cycles celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Rebecca Morley chats to owner Phil Corley as he reflects on professional racing, the rise of the internet and cycling DNA.
It’s fair to say that with a National Road Race win and decades of IBD ownership behind him, Phil Corley is a man who knows the trade inside out. Having been founded in Great Linford in 1979, this year marks a ruby anniversary for Corley Cycles, now based in Stacey Bushes, Milton Keynes.
“Nothing has really happened in 40 years,” laughs Corley. “We’ve seen a lot of changes with the business we had then and what we’re doing now. I’ve had three different premises in that time, but I’ve been in this current one since 1987. “At the time, Milton Keynes was like a new town, with young families there, and I identified a market and it has worked out quite well over the years.”
Corley became a British pro champion in 1978, and was still racing when he opened his first shop a year later. “Opening a store wasn’t necessarily something I always going to do,” he says. “It was a case of figuring out what you can do once you’re a retired bike rider, but obviously, being a rider doesn’t automatically make you qualified to go into business.” He notes, however, that the decision was much easier in those times, mainly due to the lack of internet. “We had a good 20 or 30 years before we had any trouble from that,” he says.
As we’re all no doubt aware, the internet has caused an almost unrecognisable change across the retail industry, with many businesses struggling to keep up with the constantly evolving trends. Corley says that although the internet has caused him trouble, he recognises that it is progress for other people. From a personal perspective, he describes some of the technological changes as a ‘nightmare’. “I don’t know where it’s all going to end,” he says. “We’re trying to move far more into the service side, we have good mechanics, we have a very good workshop and hopefully a very good reputation, so we’re trying to expand that side of things.
“There are certain areas that we do very well – it’s a case of offering things that you can’t get on the internet, like upmarket bespoke bikes. If someone wants to custom-build the bike of their dreams then we can sit down, have a coffee with them and talk through everything they need. That’s something that you’ve got to experience at the retail end. You can’t really do that online unless you know exactly what you want. You need someone who knows what they’re talking about to go through it with you.”
It’s a similar story to other bike shops around the country. “We don’t have a choice. You either go down that road or go out of business,” Corley explains. “I get a bit bitter about it because for years and years we’ve had our pants pulled down by suppliers, taking in pre-season buyings and that kind of thing, to popularise a product and put it on the wall. “But after we’ve popularised it, the guys on the internet get hold of it and my total stock becomes worthless.
“It took quite a long time of being taken advantage of and never being paid for it before the suppliers started to realise that it couldn’t carry on like this. I really don’t know when it’s all going to end. At the moment, I suppose it will be with what we’re doing here and now, moving more towards the service side. We have quite a strong club and a strong following locally, and we all enjoy our cycling and dealing with the customers that come in.”
Other than the obvious simplicity of buying online in the comfort of your own home, the internet has also redefined the way consumers research their potential purchases. Online comparison means customers can find the cheapest deal at the click of the button, which makes it even more difficult for brick and mortar retailers to compete. “Everyone comes in with their phone, and we just can’t sell things,” says Corley. “Customers want us to show them a product, to see it, handle it, and then to get it at a lower price than I’m buying it for.”
Moving more towards service is one way the store is responding to this, concentrating on what it does well. Corley says the store is good with service, bike fitting, collection and delivery, as well as looking after the needs of its customers. He says: “Even when it looks like someone’s bought their stuff on the internet, our workshop is still open to all, don’t be shy! We charge the same, we won’t charge you a premium for having bought stuff on the internet, you can’t do that. You’ve got to embrace it, I do understand that, if that’s the way it’s going to be. I’m probably painting a bit of a grim picture. I do think there’s a future for us, for the independent retailer, with service and custom building in certain areas, but the trade as we’ve known it is finished.”
Despite the challenges, Corley says he’s still managed to make a reasonably good living out of something he enjoys: “I’ve raised two families, had children and grandchildren, and they’ve all got houses and they’re all healthy. I’ve got a couple of ex-wives who’ve got very nice houses as well! It’s not all bad, and that’s from the bike trade. It’s just sad when things change, but not necessarily bad. It’s sad because it’s not as you remember it.
“What’s bad is being taken advantage of, and that’s something I feel quite strongly about as an independent bike dealer, that we’ve had the rough end of the stick. Suppliers have allowed the internet to get this huge foothold on our business without having to do the work to get it. I’ve never been paid for it, none of us have. When we’re all gone, they’ll have to think of some other way to popularise their products. I’ll be long gone by then. Maybe it’s not a bad thing, maybe it’s just progress, and maybe I’m being a bit old-fashioned because I’m in retail, but I don’t like it. When my daughter has her children they won’t even know that the shop existed. Not just a bike shop, but any shop whatsoever.”
One thing a local bike shop does provide is a sense of community, which you don’t get on the internet. This is something people want, Corley says, and his store does have a strong club and following. Every year it does a trip to Belgium, and it also had around 20 riders doing the Coast to Coast in June. He says it’s important to him that his employees are keen riders, partly due to the fact that being involved in the cycling community is where you find future employees, but most importantly, he says it’s about meeting like-minded people. “I think it’s important for my customers as well, to come in and to speak to someone who’s passionate about what they’re dealing with, passionate about what they’re selling and what they’re doing,” he says. “I’ve never been that good a businessman, but what I wanted was a really nice bike shop, and I’m happy I’ve managed to build that.”
Throughout the 40 years it has been in business, Corley Cycles has seen many new ranges of products come through the shop. One such trend that has gained momentum recently is e-bikes. The market for electric-assist cycles is now stronger than ever, and this is something that Corley is promoting. He says: “It’s an area that the customers need to have a point of contact for. You can buy a cheap internet e-bike, but what do you do when you’ve got trouble with it? We can’t do anything with it, but if it’s a branded bike of reasonable quality then we can. We’ve got mechanics who are trained and can deal with these things. So that’s another area where we can see a potential for growth.”
So after four decades, does Corley have any plans to retire soon? His long-term business partner retired five years ago, and Corley bought him out and carried on. “I’m 67, so I’m past retirement age,” he laughs. “What I’d really like to do is get some investment, to be able to do what we want to do, and move over to service. To move the store forward to a modern-day bike shop, concentrating on services more than sales, and e-bikes, custom builds, upmarket gravel bikes and things that people want to touch and feel. Things that they’re not going to waste hours of your time on then buy on the internet. We can concentrate on all of those things and do it in a professional way, to future-proof ourselves really.
“I do love the bike trade, even if it doesn’t sound like it sometimes! But I’ve been involved for a long time and before that, I was racing. So for 50-something years, I’ve either been riding bikes, racing bikes, riding as a professional or selling them. It’s in my DNA now, which is why I’m passionate about the way it’s going and the way the trade is going.”
He continues: “Big businesses are involved now, but when I started it was probably more of a cottage industry. This is like an industrial unit that we’re in. We moved here in 1987 and we were probably one of the first businesses in the country to be operating. It was about 3,200 square feet and we opened seven days a week. In 1987, no one did any of those things. No one operated a shop that size, and nobody opened seven days a week either.
“I feel that we’ve sort of led, during plenty of that time, and we’re still here,” Corley says.
“We’ve always been open to new ideas and new trends. Even when mountain bikes were at their height, we never went away from selling race bikes because it was in our blood and we’re enthusiasts. When race bikes became popular again, we were ready to pick that up. A million and one new shops opened when they thought the bike was re-invented at the London Olympics. A lot of shops opened off the back of that and a lot of them are closing now. Business is still there and it’s still good, but there are too many outlets there.”
He continues: “Internet companies come in with a lot of backing and a lot of money, and are prepared to sell stuff at less than they buy it for, what chance do we stand? In the long run, I don’t think there’s going to be any winners. The public can buy their stuff cheaply but for a limited amount of time. But there won’t be any service or any back-up, or any other stuff that we’re doing now.” He references Evans Cycles, which was sold to Sports Direct last October and resulted in the announcement that half of its stores could close. “They don’t come a lot bigger than that,” Corley says. “It’s a bleak outlook if we carry on as we were. So we just have to try to adapt.”
With the challenges many retailers are facing in the industry, keeping an independent bike shop open for so long is a huge achievement, and Corley Cycles plans to celebrate accordingly. “We want to do 40 events,” Corley concludes. “From small to large, we want to host 40 days of something, or 40 nights.”