Disclaimer: Chain Reaction Cycles did not fly me in to see their operation in Northern Ireland. I went under my own steam (a Brompton, to be exact, although, yes, an aeroplane was also involved) and I paid my own way. Or, at least CRC didn’t pay for me to be in town, I was there giving a talk at The Fred, a cycling festival in Belfast and it was this festival which covered my expenses. I highlight this up front because a certain highly-placed individual wrote to BikeBiz towers complaining that I had visited CRC “on a jolly”, inferring that any comments I might make about the Watson family business would be darkened by the colour of their money. (Of which they’ve got lots – the Watson family was sixth on this year’s Sunday Times Irish Rich List and is claimed to have a personal fortune of £200m.)
Right, that’s out of the way, what did I think about CRC? I was very impressed, as are all who visit. It’s a slick, highly professional organisation, run by bike enthusiasts. Famously, it sprang from a small bike shop in the tiny town of Ballyclare in 1989. I was taken there. The shop is now a barber’s shop, a very small barber’s shop. This was the second shop. The first, started in 1984, was Ballynure Cycles, an even smaller operation. The business was founded by George and Janice Watson – their first sale was a chain link costing 11p. Any bike shop that was around in the mid-1980s MTB boom could have grown to become Chain Reaction Cycles. There were a number of similar bike shops at the time, selling mail-order goods in “the comic” and MBUK. Some are still around, but they never expanded in the same way as Ballynure Cycles. When, in 1998, the business moved to Ballyclare the decision was made to change the firm’s name, and Chain Reaction Cycles was born. The website was launched the following year.
Offering more than 90,000 products, with a turnover in excess of £150m, Chain Reaction Cycles is now probably the largest online bike store in the world. Almost 40 percent of CRC’s sales come from outside the EU, as dealers in Australia and America know only too well.
When I was there, parcels on the conveyor belt had address labels from a dizzying collection of countries. CRC employs support staff from around the world, with French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian native speakers. In another industrial unit there’s a bikes-in-boxes operation that looks – and operates – just like a IBD’s workshop. Some of CRC’s industrial units – thanks to expansion, the outfit has a number – are on bog-standard industrial estates. You could be anywhere in the UK. But one is down a long gravel road, hidden by rolling green hills. Cows mooch about. I’m not kidding when I say the view from this particular unit could be in a TV advert for “real Irish butter”. (Wiggle includes packets of Haribo in its boxes, Chain Reaction includes fresh country air. Bullshit? Didn’t see any bulls, just cows).
Now, I could be mistaken but Chain Reaction is also possibly the only British bicycle retailer to sponsor a bunch of roundabouts. Twelve in the Ballyclare to Belfast area have been branded with CRC logos. (I saw some when I rode to the firm’s 150,000 sq ft purpose-built HQ.) The roundabout sponsorship is not to generate sales, it’s community PR, good for attracting staff (of which CRC now has nearly 600).
The retailer has also opened a flagship store – you know, with walls and windows and stuff – on the outskirts of Belfast. This, too, is impressive. The 10,000 sq ft store is much larger than the in-house store at one of CRC’s other warehouses.
CRC’s presence in this part of Northern Ireland is rather dominant – it’s one of the area’s biggest employers.
CRC is Royal Mail’s largest customer in Northern Ireland. The firm mails more than 40,000 parcels a week. How does it manage that? With tech. Packers don’t work from print-outs or hand-held gizmos – they are told what to pack, where it’s located and where to put it by a computer voice from a headset. In the world of Warehouse Management this is known as “voice picking.”
No doubt this would be normal for Amazon. But does Amazon have cows at the door?