#TOTPU: Ribble Cycles pedalling in new direction at Bluewater

Ribble Cycles has a 122-year history in bike manufacturing but it is creating a new brand image helped by a pop-up shop strategy, starting at Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre.

Opening a select few stores across the UK is part of Ribble’s plan to raise its profile, as it aims to become the country’s number one premium bike brand. From a position three years ago, when it had become “just another bike retailer” mainly selling third-party parts and clothing, to a brand that places its own technical expertise and custom-built products at the centre of its proposition, Ribble is embarking on a new road race.

And when Essential Retail visited on a Thursday in February, we were given the full Ribble customer experience. This editor was given the full tour, quizzed about his cycling preferences (non-existent as he hadn’t been on a saddle since a holiday to Slovenia in 2007), and measured up for all the suitable components.

What, where, when?

Open since August 2019, the pop-up store on the first floor of Bluewater shopping centre in Greenhithe, Kent is open seven days a week, presenting some of Ribble's high-end bikes in an uncluttered and neutral-coloured retail environment.

It is the third Ribble store, and is described by CEO Andy Smallwood as “galleryesque”. The company has a store at its base in Preston, and a shop at Mailbox Birmingham, while a Trinity Leeds pop-up came and went in 2019.

Bluewater was initially taken on a short-term lease, but it has proved so successful over six months that owner True Capital and the exec team have extended Ribble’s stay for at least another 20 months.

Standout features

The online connectivity to the store, and the expert advice on offer are standout features of Ribble’s physical retail presence.

Although not currently live in Bluewater (it’s in Preston but coming soon to other stores), Go Instore’s online video linkup was showcased to Essential Retail. Online customers looking for more information can click for live video and are instantly connected to an in-store expert, who can offer a more thorough look at inventory.

Online but in the store: Go Instore's technology offers Ribble's online shoppers the chance to chat with store staff and see products up close, accompanied by expert advice
Online but in the store: Go Instore's technology offers Ribble's online shoppers the chance to chat with store staff and see products up close, accompanied by expert advice

There is a large touchscreen in situ displaying Ribble’s Magento-platformed website, which new customers are directed towards to build and customise their ideal bike. For customers who have already engaged online, there is an opportunity to bring up a version of the design they’ve worked on at home.

An accompanying measuring service ensures components of the bike are personalised to a customer’s shape, size, preference, and cycling style. It’s a thorough examination.

Connecting online and offline: Ribble CEO, Andy Smallwood, talks us through the bike builder tool. Customers can grab a free coffee in store, too
Connecting online and offline: Ribble CEO, Andy Smallwood, talks us through the bike builder tool. Customers can grab a free coffee in store, too

And as part of the brand’s ‘Ribble Live’ guided local rides programme, Bluewater customers have already had the chance to engage with the company at Redbridge Cycling Centre – there are more staff-led rides in the pipeline for the summer.

What the retailer says…

Smallwood, who joined the business as CEO in October 2017, says it is no accident Ribble Bluewater is two units away from consumer electronics giant Apple’s store, and on the same side of the mall as electric car brand, Tesla.

“Adjacencies with other brands are very important for us,” he notes, adding that he wants Ribble to be viewed as a lifestyle brand or a tech brand. He likens the process of purchasing a Ribble bike – which are worth thousands of pounds – to purchasing a high-end car.

"It's closer towards motors than it is traditional cycle retail," Smallwood says of the Ribble bike-buying process
"It's closer towards motors than it is traditional cycle retail," Smallwood says of the Ribble bike-buying process

Smallwood offers a very modern response to a question about measuring success, saying: “We don’t look at the sales attributed to that store directly, we look at the impact the store has on a geographic location – the radius of the Bluewater store.”

He talks about a careful roll-out of stores, learning from each one’s unique location and format. Bluewater is in one of the UK’s busiest shopping centres, driving organic traffic and providing a destination venue for enthusiasts in keeping with Ribble’s brand ideals.

Having launched in August, covering the end of Ribble’s busiest part of the year, and then trading through Bluewater’s peak Christmas period, the team are keen to see how window shopping translates to sales come springtime.

“People have seen our product and brand over the winter period and will they revisit us when bike buying season arises?” Smallwood queries.

The CEO is confident they will, and the signs were good while this publication was visiting, with one happy customer walking out with a £3,000+ bicycle signed, sealed and delivered.

The Essential Retail verdict

We hear a lot from retailers talking about personalisation, expert service, and merging of ‘the channels’ – i.e. linking the store experience to a brand’s digital presence. It’s very rare to see it all come off in one space, as it does at Ribble Bluewater.

Yes, the team at Bluewater were prepared for our visit, so no doubt pulled out all the stops. But the store is set up in such a way that all these boxes are ticked anyway – it is, fundamentally, the Ribble proposition.

Most of its customers start their research online but head in store to seek advice before completing a purchase, and the very nature of a Ribble customer is to seek a customised bike requiring a fitting service. It’s a considered purchase, and the expert team available to store visitors – and online shoppers via the Go Instore linkup – is representative of what premium bike buyers require.

I got on the saddle and experienced it for myself – it felt part Savile Row suit fitting, part medical examination, but by the end of the process all measurements were available should I want to buy a premium, customised bike. I’m a runner not a cyclist, so that’s not what I want, but for two-wheel enthusiasts it’s certainly a comprehensive service.

Read more on Ribble’s future plans in an Essential Retail focus piece, coming soon.