It was founded in 1860 when Thomas Pearson moved from Cobham to Sutton to set up as a blacksmith. A family photograph shows him wearing a cycling cap and it’s likely he was a keen cyclist in the 1870s – as a blacksmith he would have been in much demand from the few cyclists of the day. By 1880 the business was selling bicycle parts and later made its own bicycle range, the Endeavour roadster. Thomas’ son Harry was handed the reins of the business in the 1890s and he ran the family firm until his death in 1946. His sons Arthur and Len ran the business until the 1960s. Arthur’s son Roger – a keen road racer and cyclo-crosser – took over and managed the firm until he died of cancer in 1996 (Arthur and Roger died within two months of each other). In the 1980s the shop in Sutton (it's on the one-mile long High Street, pedestrianised in 1979) was a Raleigh 5-star dealer, and prospered during the mountain bike boom, selling 3000+ bikes each year. Now it’s run by fifth generation brothers, Will and Guy Pearson. In January 2012 they opened a store in Sheen, ten miles from the Sutton branch. At the time Will joked: “We have a slow roll-out programme; one store every 150 years.”
However, Guy Pearson told me the business could add another store within the next few years, “perhaps even in central London.”
The Sutton store sells to family-type customers, the Sheen store – half a mile from Richmond park, a honeypot for cyclists – is more upmarket, with a coffee corner, an upstairs (third-party) therapy business, and a walk-in workshop. Also on the top floor is the shop’s bike fitting service. A Pearson’s bike-fit costs £195. “We try and get most customers to have bike fits,” said Guy. “It’s a really valuable service to the customer; it’s not just about the right size, it’s also pedal-stroke analysis and talking through what a customer wants to get out of their riding.”
He added: “Before bike fitting came along we were all guessing [about bike sizes] in the bike trade; guessing with experience but still guessing. It’s so much more professional to offer bike fits.”
Guy said the bike fit was a key “internet-busting” tactic. Like all IBDs Pearson’s gets its fair share of “showroomers” – internet shoppers using brick-and-mortar shops to try on clothes and shoes – but the shop’s staff-training manual offers guidance on how to deal with such customers.
“Of course, people buy from internet, even ones loyal to us,” said Guy. “I don’t blame them when prices are so much cheaper online, and that’s fine for some products, but not clothing. Show-rooming happens, the phones come out and you see people scanning barcodes. We have been known to throw out the rudest showroomers, but we also tackle it head-on, but delicately. When a customer has tried on a couple of pairs of shoes we ask, “Are you likely to buy these from us?” That often leads to a conversation about price but we’ll then counter with the setting-up service we offer. We often go from a lost-sale situation to a full-on conversion to a purchase of the shoes and the cleat fitting service. This is win/win – we get the sale and the customer get the cleats placed in the right position, something that’s hit and miss at home.”
Pearson’s other key measure to defeat those scanning barcodes to find products cheaper online is to offer products not available anywhere else, the classic own-brand tactic. The shop had its own brand in the 1960s and 1970s, with Roberts making the frames in the early 1980s and Dave Yates of Tyneside taking over later in the decade. Now the shop has 15 models sourced from Asia, including titanium, carbon, aluminium and steel, mainly road bikes.
“We started majoring on road bikes in 2000,” said Guy. “The turning point was the Pearson Touché, a singlespeed alu road bike which cost £550 and was perfect for the Cycle to Work scheme. We sold thousands, and were building them up morning noon and night. That launched us as a bona fide road-bike brand.”
Almost half of the bikes sold by Pearson across its two stores are own-brand bicycles.
“All are designed around fitting,” said Guy. “Each frame comes in number for sizes, right for most people, unlike many production bikes especially those from Italy. We don’t have to do many adjustments to get the right fit.”
Pearson’s has 30 staff across the two stores, with 15 working at any one time. The shop’s target women. “There are lots more women customers in our Sheen store,” said Guy. “Both mums and dads ride bikes in this area as we’re so close to Richmond park.”
The store has a regular “women’s night” with 30 to 40 women introduced to cycling. Some are getting into cycling as a sport, many are also buying bikes for their kids, too.
“We had a very successful Christmas,” said Guy. “For the first time in many years we sold a substantial number of kids’ bikes at Christmas. So did everybody! This year was first year in 10 or so years when there wasn’t a new games console, that made a massive difference. In 1990s we were doing 400 or 500 bikes at Christmas. Two years ago it was 60 across both shops. This year it was back up to 400.”
Selling kids’ bikes is largely seasonal, bike fitting is a year-round cash generator. The Pearson Precision Fit bike fitting service is heavily promoted in-store, with posters and a looping video. (Precision Fit is a Trek initiative, Pearson’s originally operated the Cyclefit system.) The venture was a natural, er, fit for Guy Pearson – before taking over the business he did a degree in sports science. He’s two years older than brother Will, and started full-time in the business in 1993.
“I’d worked in the store since 13 or 14,” said Guy. Will the sixth generation take over from Will and Guy?
“Will has got three kids, and so have I. The eldest is 11 so we’re nowhere near wondering about a transition to the next generation.
“We were lucky, we just stepped into the job and didn’t have to pay anything. Whether that happens going forward is unknowable. The business is five times the size it was twenty years ago. If any of our kids wanted to take over they might have to buy their way in.
“We’ve been tempted to take external investment. It’s certainly a possibility for the future. It would enable us to expand the bike range. We’re a British heritage brand, there’s clear potential to expand in Japan and perhaps America.”