Halfords’ Cycle Republic format attempts to rival independent stores and cash in on their affluent shopper base. John Ryan visits Norwich to see how it measures up.

There can’t be many areas in retail at the moment where business looks likely to take an upturn. Logic dictates, however, that one of these ought to be cycle and cycle accessories retailing. The seemingly relentless rises in the cost of motoring – even if petrol prices are dipping at present – the requirement that we act greener and the apparent cost-effectiveness of cycling as a mode of transport all point to this being an attractive option.

The fact that Halfords posted pre-tax profits up 3.2 per cent to£49.1 million for the half year to September 26 might seem to indicate that everything is going in the right direction for the UK’s largest cycle retailer. After all, who hasn’t dipped into Halfords from time to time to pick up a spare inner tube or maybe buy a cheap cycle helmet for personal use or for reckless offspring.

And within its stores, the discrete Bikehut area, frequently occupying a mezzanine area, is where the two-wheeled action takes place. The bulk of what is on offer is own-brand Halfords products, although private label abounds as the retailer understands that in spite of being a force in cycling, people prefer the name Carrera or, at the better end, Boardman, on the crossbar to Halfords.

The problem for Halfords, however, is that there is a sizeable, relatively monied section of the cycling public that eschews the blandishments on offer, preferring instead to head for the independent bike shop. These are the people who don’t blink much when parting with upwards of£1,000 for a bike bearing the right name and who need to feel that they are being served by knowledgeable experts.

With this in mind, a couple of years back Halfords took the Bikehut formula to the high street, initially in Brighton, with a standalone format based on the Halfords in-store areas. In this store, more expensive bikes were on offer with the kind of kit and level of service more usually associated with indie bike retailers such as Evans or Condor.

Two years on and there still aren’t that many Bikehut stores around and in October, Halfords launched another standalone bike shop fascia called Cycle Republic. Two of these are up and running, in Norwich and York, and it is hard to avoid the thought that if Bikehut had proved a winner for Halfords, Cycle Republic might not have appeared.

Halfords claims that the Bikehut stores are performing “satisfactorily”, which is usually corporate speak for a mite disappointing. But will Cycle Republic prove a winning alternative and are we likely to see another 48 branches, to make up the 50-store strong standalone bike shop portfolio that the retailer believes is the UK’s potential?

Standing outside the 1,400 sq ft (130 sq m) Norwich outpost, it would take a pretty canny observer to work out that this store is any part of the Halfords empire. Sam Preece, development manager for the standalone bike stores at Halfords is clear about the reasons for the move to Cycle Republic from Bikehut. “This is the next stage in the trial for us. We know that some cyclists prefer independents and even the Bikehut stores had an association with Halfords that is off-putting for some,” she says.

Brand new

Certainly looking at the name above the door, with Cycle Republic worked out in a rough-and-ready, agitprop-style font, it is the kind of look that would readily be associated with the independent sector. As a name, it certainly gives Pedal Revolution, the local independent competitor, a run for its money. And the stock in the window is what you would expect of an indie. Prices for onlookers are not bargain-basement, with machines in the window running from a few hundred pounds to a sleek-looking white and silver model priced at just under£3,000.

Yet if you really are in the know, and it’s worth bearing in mind that many cycling enthusiasts will be, then you’ll probably be aware that the upscale Boardman bike in the window is part of a range available only at Halfords. It is, however, in good company, displayed alongside names such as Condor, a brand that has its own store in London, and the retro-looking Pashley bike, decked out in an orange and turquoise livery.

Inside the shop it is immediately obvious that Preece’s aim of not looking “corporate” has been achieved. Like all the best bike shops, there isn’t a great deal of room to move, with the layout being a simple island housing the bikes, separated from the perimeter by a walkway.

Unlike the Brighton Bikehut, where space was not at quite such a premium, range decisions have had to be made about what to have in stock and the Norwich store has 75 bikes on display, while there are 100 in the York branch. This is far smaller than the Brighton Bikehut, but once again means that it feels far more like an independent bike store.

Preece says that every Halfords-owned standalone bike store – Cycle Revolution or Bikehut – has, to an extent, been tailored to meet the requirements of the local market. Practically, this means that in the St Paul’s Bikehut branch in London for example, there is a heavy emphasis on road bikes and hybrids (a mountain bike with thin wheels), to accommodate the large number of biking commuters.

She says there are also commuters in Norwich, but there are a fair number of bike club diehards for whom forking out£500 on a Mavic wheel – in stock at this store – is not a problem. The central island is in fact little more than a bike rack offering a variety of brands and cycle types.

It is around the perimeter that the real visual merchandising skill comes into play. On the right hand side of the shop, just inside the window, there is what Preece refers to as “the bling cabinet”. This turns out to be an illuminated glass and steel cabinet containing shiny bike parts, some of which are distinctly aspirational in terms of pricing.

Next to this is a Shimano panel. Anyone with any experience of a modern bike is likely to have come across the name Shimano – it is the brand that appears on the gear sets that accompany road and mountain bikes. Halfords has worked with Shimano to create a point-of-sale panel with an integrated video screen that illustrates the merits of some of the higher-end products from the manufacturer.

Preece says that working with brands has been central to the Cycle Republic project and that having their names scattered around the shop adds credibility to the offer. Moving around the perimeter, there are panels for tyres, inner tubes, mudguards, clothing, backpacks and visibility implements.

There is also a changing room. This is something that you won’t find in many bike shops, but it is worth bearing in mind that try before you buy is essential for products such as cycling performance tops that may cost up to£100.

The red back wall, picking up on the colours of the logo on the exterior, features a lion graphic. Preece says that this is a reference to the stone lions found on Norwich castle and in York the image is of the Minster. Finally, the cash desk is manned by bike experts and a chalk board informs shoppers of the bike servicing options that are on offer – all as it should be in a good independent bike store.

But will it work? This, after all, is not much more than an another indie cycle shop, heavily merchandised and patronised by lean-looking types in search of the next big bike thing. Which is probably why it will be successful. As an instance of a retailer trying to perform a chameleon act and look like others in a sector of which it is not a part, this is a good effort.

Cycle Revolution looks and feels like the sort of environment where shoppers will go because they want to avoid the big chains and as such has a much better chance than Bikehut. The obvious question is why not rebadge the Bikehut standalone stores sooner rather than later?