When self-confessed ‘bike nut’ Tim White came back from a couple of years in Canada he had a dream of setting up a different kind of bike shop. Over the last recession-hit year he’s done just that, creating T. White’s Bikes, a success story (voted Metro ’s best Bike Shop in Auckland 2009) that has bike addicts and casual riders flocking to his Symonds Street store. Some even come for a haircut.
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White’s Bikes success is down to Tim’s total understanding of his target market and his focus on the current fixed gear/single speed trend. But he’s also applied several important strategies (read beliefs). First and foremost he understands and delivers what he calls an “old fashioned mentality, where you know the owner, he respects you and he fixes your flat tire or has a beer with you. It’s a bond that’ll take you through the hard times and creates great word of mouth.”
Admittedly it’s not something larger chain stores can easily replicate. But during a recession it’s helped Tim achieve tremendous success in a highly competitive market. The second strategy is harder to pull off. It’s about creating an environment your customers see as having the x-factor. Tim wanted to “break the mould” and create a shop for and by bike enthusiasts, with “a presence that feels different when you walk in”. He’s achieved just that, taking a different approach to displaying and lighting product, and “setting up a shelf unit for touching and feeling the parts that gives the shop an earthy feel”. Crucially, he’s also employed other bike addicts with a passion for what they sell.
Another factor is providing quality product. “Why sell people cost-effective products when they want top shelf, limited edition gear?”.
Going beyond face value
Unlike the bigger chain stores, Tim has also understood the growing customer desire to recycle or rebuild old bikes, setting up the Second Hand Bike Centre downstairs.
Perhaps the thing that most sets T. White’s Bikes apart is its in-house barber shop and the fact it will soon feature a bar. For while Tim understands building a customer community is the key to success (and fully utilises the online channel), he also knows that in his niche nothing matches providing a hip place where bike lovers can simply ‘hang out’. Most interesting of all is the fact that T. White’s Bikes success has come without a cent being spent on advertising. Tim’s customers do that for him via word of mouth. Obviously the big players would kill for that. But being ‘hip’ and being a major player don’t often go together.
Can it scale?
So the really interesting question is whether this model could be replicated across a range of shops. T. White’s Bikes mixes Tim’s (i.e. the on-the-ground manager’s) unique vision and personality, an ‘x-factor’ environment a niche market ‘believes’, and a customer service team who truly ‘live’ bike culture. This approach is the antithesis of the chain store model but could it be franchised, where local store owners create and drive their version of the T. White’s Bikes magic? Would this still appeal with credibility to the bike fraternity? It’s a question Tim hadn’t really thought about until now. After all he’s been rather busy.
But with year one for T. White’s Bikes coming to a close, and the Metro Magazine Best Bike Shop in Auckland 2009 award just announced, it’s a notion worth considering.
“It’s a really good question”, says Tim, “and I’ve had to have a good think about it. I think you could replicate the model, but it would be really challenging because it’s so important who you have in the front line in-store. It would come down to being incredibly good at picking the right manager. And they would probably be the ‘one in a thousand’ kind of guy. But if you could get the right person it could work.
“A lot of what I do is about relationships with support people, like my biggest wholesaler, who are like family really. If I need a set of spokes for a customer in an hour they’ll courier it and probably not charge me. Already having those industry connections, or being able to develop the relationships would be essential. They’d also have to work alongside me and the team for several months to totally get the approach we take, so suppliers and customers see them as part of our gang.”
“The other thing that would be important is that I’d need to set him or her up with a shop in their own neighbourhood, ideally where they’ve grown up. That’s really key, because they’ll need the support of family, friends and ex-school mates, as well as local ‘street’ knowledge and cred to make the business work. In fact that’s so important I’d rather have a half-arsed local guy than a hot shot in from the States. So, yes, we could replicate the model – possibly. Interesting question…”