On the surface, the British cycling industry appears to be dominated by high street mainstays such as Evans, Cycle Surgery, Halfords and online destinations Wiggle and Chain Reaction. However, peek beneath the surface and you’ll find a community of smaller operators who are the ones bringing new brands to these shores for the first time, and building up a group of dedicated customers.
One such retailer is Always Riding, an ecommerce business set up by Pete Harrington in early 2008 with his wife. In an era which has widely been acknowledged as one of the worst to set up a new venture, Harrington attributes the survival of his business through that period to the fact that there were no overheads and headquarters could be found in his parent’s garage.
Coming to the conclusion that the cycling clothing market in the UK was not well served, the idea was to establish something a little different – bringing together high quality brands from around the world which hadn’t before distributed in the UK.
The first brand it stocked was from New Zealand, and since then Always Riding has gone on to become a trailblazer for brands which might not have made it to our digital shopping shelves before.
Harrington attributes the offering that his business has been able to cultivate to the way in which cottage industries sprung up in the aftermath of the global financial crisis – from Australia, to the US, to Asia. “If we didn’t have that, and had to go to established brands, we couldn’t have survived,” he explained. “Those like Wiggle are so good and big, we would have been hosed down.”
Despite in excess of 50 per cent of its sales coming from countries outside of the UK, it was perhaps chance more than anything else that led Always Riding to become a global seller. Not thinking anyone would buy from overseas, Harrington’s third order after launch came from France.
Building an infrastructure that can handle this kind of international trade has been a “bloody nightmare”, he revealed. “Even now, things you think are easy are really difficult. They are getting better, but only in the last two years have things become more fluid – not needing hours to work out how to do it.”
I asked him to select a few markets which were particularly hard to crack, and he gravitated straight to the US. Describing it as a little bit of a “closed shop” when it comes to enterprises like his, he had to portray an offering that was unique enough. “Americans are tough, you need to be quick. It was hard to get a good sales process in, but it is better now because of things like SEO,” he added.
“Logistics-wise they assume you are in the US – which is kind of our fault. If you say you have great service that means next day. We can now offer that with DHL, but you have to be really great.”
Japan was also cited as tough one, mainly on the linguistics front. Not wanting to ignore the strong demand for the products Always Riding stocked, from potential Japanese customers, Harrington turned to applications such as Transfluent, which machine translates customers emails. While it may mean a delay of a few hours in correspondence, he believes it is a very good “half-way house”.
“Japanese translation in 2008 couldn’t have been done online,” he remembered. “You could have contacted a company with a website, which would then have done it for you, but not though an app interface. That and the cottage industry of cycling has arisen – those two things have allowed everything.”
Always Riding now processes all of its sales using Stripe, allowing it to accept payments in thirteen currencies. “Since implementing Stripe, most of our customers now choose to save their card details for future use. This means that it’s easier for them to checkout and we’ve definitely seen a pick up in repeat business.”
Read more about cycling businesses in the UK:
- Blazing a trail: The urban cycling security entrepreneurs
- How 50cycles electrified the bicycle retail market to disrupt the UK transport system
- How Rapha came of age in 2014
While the business still only has three staff, Harrington readily admitted that he probably needs a few more. Having bootstrapped from inception after using savings to get going, he is aware of the risk a stock-based business can encounter if overreaching occurs.
“I’m constantly envious of those businesses that can do well without stock, it’s less of a headache. Managing cash flow with sales has restricted us, if we had more funding we could have taken more opportunities. But banks are so anti-enterprise, it’s obtuse and obscene how bad they are when they do talk to you.”
While Always Riding is not engaging with brands who expect retailers to bulk buy 1,000 jerseys, Harrington has had to develop a bit of a nose for what he thinks will sell and make a punt on some new ones. One example he looks upon fondly was a brand from San Francisco discovered on Instagram. Having dropped $10,000 on stock, he was relieved when the products eventually sold well.
“Luckily it worked, but you can’t have too many like that not working. It’s all about being very aware of what people are talking about on social media. And even then, people can tell you what they want, but not actually really know what they want until it’s put in front of them,” he explained.
Ultimately, he stated, it all comes down to having the best product. While you can have a super-slick website, he believes it will always be those focusing on product that will prosper in the long run.
Going up against the likes of Evans, Wiggle and Chain Reaction means this attention to product is paramount. Interestingly enough, Harrington learned though is informed grapevine that Wiggle had spent a few days looking at his website – hoping to draw inspiration on making its destination more friendly.
The rise in popularity in cycling, stemming from events such as the London Olympics and Tour de France grand depart from Yorkshire, and riders including Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy and Chris Froome, has undoubtedly given entrepreneurs like Harrington a wider customer base.
However, as with all of these types of trends, it is very hard to fully determine their impact on the bottom line. For now, Harrington is happy that cycling is in the spotlight, but still has his work cut out repeatedly identifying the smaller brands which might just fly out of his distribution centre.
“The market is getting a bit saturated, so needs cleaning out. Our plan is get more brands we feel offer something different, grow organically and start adding a few new categories.”
While the big retailers battle it out for high street dominance, and Wiggle turns itself into a retail bank financing bike purchases, I came away feeling that Always Riding has carved out a nice little niche for itself in the market. As it says on the company website, the retailer is there for all, “whether you hit the trails or the tarmac”.
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