Stephen Laird, Retail Manager of Chain Reaction Cycles Belfast store, reveals why their risk of opening a local store 'offline' paid off.
The Watson family, who owned Chain Reaction Cycles, grew it from a small shop in Ballynure to the ‘world’s largest online cycle retailer’ in just a matter of years.
‘‘Although the demand of goods internationally had driven the exponential growth of the company via the internet, they were keen to open another local store 'offline' to not only showcase the vast variety of stock we sold online, but to also make it a user-friendly cycle destination for local cyclists,’’ Stephen Laird, Retail Manager of the flagship Belfast store, explains.
‘‘When we made the decision to go from ‘clicks to-bricks’ in 2011 we went reverse-logic. Most retailers went online after having a good high street presence; we did the opposite.
‘‘The gamble on hoping that our online customers in Northern Ireland who had shopped on our website would leave the comfort of ordering from their living rooms and come back to the high street was always daunting. However, it does work.
‘‘People who know and trust the Chain Reaction Cycles brand come from many miles to visit the ‘off-line store.’ We get quite a few tourists calling in, some on the many cruises now calling into Belfast to pop-in and see us. People naturally love human interaction, should it be to discuss a technical piece of equipment or just call in ‘for the craic.’ This is something the internet just cannot replicate.
‘‘We had a great showroom and trade-counter at our Doagh warehouse, but we really wanted to have the best cycling shop across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
‘‘The discussion started over lunch in our staff canteen on where the shop would be, what it would stock, what services we could offer and ultimately, would it make money in a world where online retail was starting to dominate?
‘‘Less than a year later we had designed, built, stocked, recruited for and opened the Belfast store on the Boucher Road.’’
Merging with Wiggle
When Chain Reaction Cycles later merged with Wiggle, Stephen explains it was initially met negatively in the local press, but the move has actually had a positive impact on the retail division.
‘‘Chain Reaction Cycles online still has a massive physical presence in Northern Ireland,’’ he reveals. ‘‘Following the merger with Wiggle in 2016 we got a lot of negative press about the future of the company in Northern Ireland.
‘‘Although our site in Doagh migrated to Wolverhampton, we retained our bicycle warehouse in Ballyclare. The site has modernised there, and we currently dispatch bikes for both the Chain Reaction Cycles and Wiggle brands from it. Our commercial headquarters in Mallusk moved into a new site on the Trench Road in 2017. All our customer services, marketing, buying and merchandising and house brands development teams are based there.
The impact on the retail division was positive. We have now expanded our brands and have the availability of apparel such as the Wiggle-owned DHB brand. A previously online-only brand which we now are the only retail store in the world to hold.’’
The flagship 10,000 ft Boucher Road store, which caters for all disciplines of cycling and running, now boasts over 180 bikes on display with a wide selection of components, accessories and clothing with highly trained staff on hand to offer expert advice. Visitors can take advantage of all the in-store services including a full Cytech workshop which offers all aspects of repairs, wheel-building, specialist suspension and electric-bike servicing, plus loads more.
‘‘We currently employ 25 colleagues; a majority of whom cycle and cover most of the many cycling disciplines from BMX, to road, to mountain biking.
‘‘We have seen a change in demographics of cyclists over the last few years with more women now taking to the sport in either a leisure or competitive capacity and our mix of staff reflects this. We have an ex-Commonwealth Games ladies’ road and mountain bike colleague and one of the team regularly competes at the ever-growing cyclo-cross. They are a great point-of contact for female shoppers enquiring on apparel, shoes and helmets.
‘‘Ensuring great customer service is key for the store to retain and grow our customer base. I think the key driver here is ensuring a user-friendly service is provided; one in which we do not get too technical when engaging with new customers. Qualifying customers’ needs is key; we’ll always ask new customers where they are from to try and gauge where they will be cycling. For example, we wouldn’t try to sell a customer a full-suspension mountain bike if they plan on cycling the Comber or Newry-Carlingford greenways!’’
The store is also currently launching ‘Staff Recommend’ point of-sale signs to highlight products the expert team recommends, with verything from nutritional products to tyre-levers.
‘‘We also use Product Ambassadors to test goods and review via social media,’’ Stephen adds. ‘‘In March of this year local social media influencer Tiffany Brien completed a charity ride from John O’Groats to Lands’ End. Whilst away she wore and reviewed the full range of our own, in-house brand DHB ladies’ road apparel.’’
Chain Reaction Cycles also use Product Ambassadors to test goods and review via social media.
‘‘In March of this year local social media influencer Tiffany Brien completed a charity ride from John O’Groats to Lands’ End. Whilst away she wore and reviewed the full range of our own, in-house brand DHB ladies’ road apparel,'’ Stephen explains.
Tiffany revealed: ‘‘This year I took part in one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures of my life. I cycled from John-O-Groats to Lands End in aid of The Doddie Foundation, a Motor Neurone Disease charity.
‘‘The distance we covered was 1,257 miles which is no mean feat and not being a cyclist this was even tougher! Prior to my challenge I very luckily had Chain Reaction Cycles come on board to support me in the form of golden advice, clothing and bike support. The weather we faced during the challenge was horrendous, we had minus degrees, snow and rain.
''I was fortunately kitted out in the top thermal gear which saved me. I wouldn’t have been able to complete the challenge as well as I did without the support of Chain Reaction Cycles and for that I am very grateful.’’
Meanwhile social media influencer Roy Porter from Templepatrick test rode one of the Chain Reaction Cycles own-branded Vitus road bikes whilst cycling in Europe this summer. His regular video updates gave followers insightful product reviews of the bike whilst riding on some of the toughest cols in the Alps, the pavé in Belgium as well as being a regular face on ITV4 and Eurosport’s coverage of the Tour de France.
Roy commented: ''When Stephen asked me if I would like to test the latest Vitus ZX-1 road bike before I headed off to Europe for six weeks in the summer for my ‘Lycra Adventure’ I couldn’t believe it.
''Brendan at CRC Belfast measured me up and set the bike to perfection right down to custom stem length, favourite pedals, saddle tweaks and the full factory CRC jersey! I felt every bit the Vitus pro! Packed up and off in the ferry we had six weeks of covering France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and then back in August for the Mournes Étape.
''A fantastic opportunity to test a racing pedigree bike and hopefully the online content was beneficial to the wonderful team at CRC Belfast!’
Dave Astin, Senior Store Manager added: ''The daily content Roy provided on Facebook, Strava and Instagram gave the Vitus road bike real-world coverage in a really user-friendly and fun language our customers loved. Roy was a fantastic ambassador for the brand and we were continually watching out for him during the television coverage of the tour.''
Meanwhile despite the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, Stephen reveals the Boucher Road Chain Reaction Cycles retail space continues to see strong sales.
‘‘Quarter four of 2018 and the first three-quarters of 2019 have seen a significant increase in actual footfall of customers from the Republic of Ireland in store. It is not uncommon for customers to travel from Leinster up to Belfast at the weekend to spend in-store.
‘‘The strong Euro obviously has impacted on this, but also because of the nature of luxury goods we sell, and that visual, physical confirmation of goods being verified before purchasing. The website has great photos of our goods, but it cannot compare to seeing and actually trying goods out before making that decision to invest.
‘‘Post October 31 is a very difficult time to forecast for. Our reliance on customers in the Eurozone and their willingness to travel is currently a major opportunity for all retailers in Northern Ireland.’’
Unique selling points
Meanwhile, with the Research & Development department for the group based in Mallusk, Stephen explains this is vital to the retail store:
‘‘One of the unique selling points of the store in Belfast is that brands such as Vitus and Nukeproof bikes, as well as Prime Wheels, Lifeline (accessories and tools) and Mobi cleaning products are designed, tested and developed locally.
‘‘Commercially, controlling our own brands ensures we do not buy them from a third-party supplier. Taking this cost out of the supply chain allows us to offer consumers goods at a lower price. This makes us very different to our competitors as customers not only love to endorse local products, but the saving is reflective in their wallet.’’
Benefits of cycling
Finally, Stephen had the following advice for anyone interested in taking up cycling but is unsure where to start: ‘‘My advice would be to think of think of not only the physical but mental benefits cycling gives back.
‘‘Changing your routine from driving into work every day and mixing-it up with a commute on the bike once a week can be very relaxing.
‘‘Taking to one of the many green lanes such as the Comber Greenway, the Bangor Coastal Path or the Portadown to Newry canal tow path allow you to cycle in a traffic-free environment. Not only is this safer but allows a nice transition before moving on to the roads.
‘‘Northern Ireland has a variety of mountain-bike trail centres, all of which are colour-coded from safe, family orientated routes to fast and technical trails for the more adventurous. These all provide a different day-out and once you have made an initial investment into either borrowing a bike from a friend or purchased one, the rest is free!’’
Chain Reactions Cycle is located at: 24 Boucher Rd, Belfast BT12 6HR. Contact: 028 9068 2703 for more details.