Tesco is coming – don’t panic, Tim Dawson (2010)

Original article first published in The Sunday Times on 2 May 2010

Sometime around the age of nine I fell in love with bicycle shops. Not only did my local shop bring my two-wheeled pride and joy back from the dead at regular intervals, but all the equipment hanging on crowded walls provided a cornucopia of potential upgrades — if only my pocket money would stretch to it. It’s an addiction that I still suffer from today.

No surprise, then, that my first reaction to the news that Tesco has started to open bicycle sections within its stores was one of horror. If the giant retailer — which is testing a specialist bike section in eight shops around the country, including Chesterfield in Derbyshire (pictured above), and West Durrington in West Sussex — turns its buying power and retailing nous to the bike trade, then won’t independent stores be doomed?

Surely, they will go the way of the butchers, bakers and — after last week’s announcement that Tesco is planning to build “mini villages” clustered around its stores — housebuilders and estate agents. RIP high street cycle shop; hello aisles full of pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap made-in-China disposable bikes?

There is nothing new about supermarkets selling bikes, of course. All the big chains have offered discount bikes at one time or another, and last year Asda even enlisted Sir Chris Hoy to front up its offer of bicycles for as little as £50.

Most serious cyclists have stayed away, however. That’s because the supermarkets have tended to sell low-spec bikes that come in boxes for self-assembly. That might be handy for buying your five-year-old a bike but if you wanted to deal with properly trained staff and buy a high-spec branded bike it was no good at all.

Tesco has tried to up the game. Its range is still aimed at family and children’s bikes — priced between £100 and £200 — but it also has a dedicated space within each store and a separate customer till. Qualified staff are on hand to advise potential customers and undertake the necessary preparations and checks. The kind of post-sale service that hitherto was the exclusive domain of “real” bike shops is also included, promises the giant retailer.

With the steep rise in interest in cycling, it is a clever move. But will it sound the death knell for traditional retailers? On balance, I suspect not.

In its annual survey of bicycle retailing, the trade magazine Bike Biz found that more than 70% of bicycle shops saw their turnover increase by 10% or more during 2009 — which was hardly a banner year for high street shopping in general. A fifth of bike shops saw turnover rise by 30% or more.

Not only that but new small stores are also opening in record numbers. So although the big boys are starting to target the market, it seems the smaller stores are still in rude health, and growing.

To survive and prosper, small bike shops need to recognise the devotion that they attract from people such as me — and maintain the kind of service that keeps us coming back.

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