On your bike
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 (just voted Metro Magazine’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.
A lot of T. 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).
Old-fashioned + x-Factor + Quality
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. But 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’.
Perhaps 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 mate’s, 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…”
Read our full interview with Tim:
DNA’s Aaron Carson spoke to Tim White about T. White’s Bikes:
AC: How long have you been riding?
TW: I’ve been riding bikes my whole life but I really started riding 15 years ago on my BMX. Then four years ago I built my first fixed gear and have being riding MTB’s over the last two years.
AC: What do bikes mean to you?
TW: Freedom! It was a way to explore the world when I was young and it’s an even better way to explore the world as I get older
AC: When did you decide to start your own bike shop?
TW: It’s always being a childhood dream to have a store, but once I operated a bike shop solo in Canada my confidence was set. I came home and went for it.
AC: What did you hope to achieve?
TW: Something different in a bike store for Auckland. A shop that had a style selection and presence that had never been done.
AC: What did you do differently to other bike shops?
TW: Most bike stores have the same displays and products, they’re all the exactly the same in most ways. We wanted to break that mould. I wanted a shop that feels different when you walk in, a place where uniforms don’t belong and you can find all kinds of interesting bikes, people, and products. We also try to showcase bikes and parts in a way that puts value into the product. Simple lamps can give a bike or part more style and presence then shoving it onto a slat wall with endless hooks. Another big thing with bike store is touching the products. We have set up a shelf unit just for that touching and feeling the parts gives the shop an earthy feel.
AC: Tell me about the Second Hand Bike Centre, the bar, and the barber you have downstairs.
TW: As the shop grew I needed more space for old and used bike parts. I hate the wasteful chain stores that don’t want to deal with old parts and just throw them out. So I rented the space below the shop I subleased some space to a customer/friend of mine wanted to set up a place to cut hair. It made complete sense to go in together and split the rent. The idea comes from the movies were you see guys hanging out at the barber shop talking and getting hair cuts. Add bikes and it comes together in a nice combination.
AC: What else cheeses you off about the generic experience associated with large bike shop chains?
TW: One of the biggest things is the staff are not bike riders, or have limited knowledge. The other thing is what they sell. Why sell people cost effective products when they want top shelf, limited edition gear for their bikes? The feel is also so important. I was in a chain store last week and it was unwelcoming and stale, with depressed looking staff, bad music and products, and bikes that looked cheap.
AC: How important is it for you to work in your business i.e. that you’re actually there as the face of T White’s?
TW: It’s what sets us apart from the chain stores. Customers come to see the owner for parts and service, and get treated with respect based on being appreciated for giving you their cash. It’s an old fashioned mentality where you know the owner and he fixes your flat tire or has a beer with you at the local bar people love. Not many business owners have that type of bond with their customers. It’s a bond that’ll take you though the hard times and creates great word of mouth advertising.
AC: As the owner of T White’s Bikes what’s most important as far as how you treat your customers?
TW: Respect and doing things you say you will do.
AC: Is it hard to find the right staff – what’s important?
TW: We find passion drives all the staff and the passion is shared between the staff and customers for bikes, giving my staff a great attitude for what there doing. The most important thing is initiative in your staff that’s the best staff to have.
AC: How much does your online presence drive sales?
TW: Online is huge. It can make or break you business and how people perceive you. Your website is the forefront for your business. If it looks crap then your business is perceived as crap. Updates are also key and blog style web pages are the only way to go. As soon as something new or exciting comes into the store it should be up on your page. My out of town customers use the site to keep updated on everything. It keeps people not in Auckland in the loop, all linked together in an ‘internet team’.
AC: How has the bike market changed in the last 10 years?
TW: The biggest change would be the “green side” where people pull old, run down bikes in to the shop for repair instead of going to the dump. It’s been interesting to see customers tell you that the shop down the street told them the bike is not worth it, yet all the customer wants is for it to work! Some of the big shops don’t have time for this but a store like mine welcomes them with open arms.
AC: Who do you partner with for promoting riding in general and/or your shop?
TW: The list is big and super important. RedBull was a given as the guys there are my friends and all ride, so we do stuff together all the time. We did a pop-up store inside Qubic’s store in New Market. That was a huge honour as Qubic is an amazing retail success. When you get a chance to have a presence in that kind of location it places you on the same level by association. We also have close affiliations with the Skull Bike Club, Zombie BMX, Steady Rolling, The Chain Gang Kids and AK Fixed. Their blogs all have links to the shop’s webpage.
AC: How important are these associations?
TW: They give the store credibility. RedBull is on top of the game for energy drinks all over the world. Qubic is at the top for street clothing and shoes. When you get involved with the top players in different fields it puts what you do at the top.
AC: How much paid advertising and promotion do you do?
TW: We never pay for advertising unless it’s a direct hit on the customers. What we do is create an environment where people want to promote what you do because of how you do it. We sponsor events throughout the year and help riders with bikes and parts. You can’t put a price on the top people in you industries promoting what you do because of how you do it.
AC: How important has the fixed gear and single speed movement been to your business?
TW: Without the fixed gear and single speeds the business would not work. It’s been a huge movement all over the world and the demographic of customers with BMXers is perfect.
AC: Do you think the fixed gear market is a new group of customers or is it the same bike addicts finding another fix via another kind of riding?
TW: There are two types of fixed gear riders. First there are the ones who ride and already love bikes. These are the best customers because they understand you need to spend a certain amount to get a good product. They also understand the components and how you ride the bikes. The other type is someone who has seen bikes around town or in a mag and likes the style, colour and lines but has never ridden for fun until they figured out they can look great doing it.
AC: Did you see this movement coming and was it the plan to service this market first?
TW: This was happening right around the time I was starting the store. So timing was key in the sense that we launched as it was just hitting and focused on it. If I’d gone earlier pushing the fixed gear and single speed thing the store would have been a slow starter.
AC: What’s the next movement in cycling?
TW: Not sure for cycling but in the shop it’s hard tail MTB jump bikes. The guys who ride fixed gears are into them and the BMXers like them, so the cross over is really good. It’s more of a sub movement inside the store.
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