Ribble Cycles CEO: differentiation comes from our own devs

“I look at what the to-do list is for the development team – and it’s significant,” explains Andy Smallwood, CEO of premium bike brand Ribble Cycles.

“To outsource that to an agency, or someone else, is counter-intuitive to what we want to do as a business.”

Smallwood was commenting during a chat with Essential Retail about the 122-year-old company’s change of direction under his leadership, a tenure that started in 2017.

Ribble started building bikes in 1897 but made a conscious decision two years ago to focus on own brand, rather than shifting third-party products. Two-and-a-half years ago when Smallwood took the helm, 75% of its business was the latter, but now circa 90% of sales are Ribble products, primarily its UK-built high-end bikes.

Ribble’s bike revenue grew by 51.3% year-on-year in the 2019 financial year, and Smallwood says that has continued into 2020. The CEO, previously a buyer at Halfords, prior to running the Boardman Bikes business which was sold to the retailer in 2014, wants Ribble to become the number one premium bike brand in the UK.

Technological expertise

From the in-store knowledge required about the bike world increasingly becoming electric-powered, and connected, to the team behind the scenes designing tools such as the customised bike builder functionality on the Ribble website, a tech focus presides across the Ribble business.

Its Preston base, one of three stores, also incorporates Go Instore’s eCommerce-to-store linkup technology, enabling online shoppers a video chat with expert store staff and to gain a closer view of inventory from the comfort of their own homes.

“Aside from Go Instore, the stuff that really differentiates us is what we’ve built ourselves – the customisation and personalisation tools,” Smallwood notes, adding that the online functionality is built into a Magento eCommerce platform.

“The evolution never finishes. For instance, the bike builder online, where customers can spec their bike, that’s been evolving even since I started here.”

That is the team’s justification for relying more on in-house developers, as opposed to outsourcing that work to software companies.

Smallwood also suggests Ribble’s newfound focus on technology, and combining the online experience with a growing store estate, is an attractive proposition for sought-after developers keen to get involved in fresh projects.

As for the customer-facing tech, Smallwood says that the Go Instore partnership could lead to some new ways of interacting with consumers. Once the tech is in all stores, Ribble will be able to direct customers to the most relevant shop based on their request, or open up the stores to international online shoppers outside of UK trading hours

“One of our team might be doing a specific talk about a specific bike on a specific date, and we can use Go Instore, so online customers can interact with it,” he adds.

In-store advice for online customers: Go Instore's technology brings Ribble's online shoppers into the store via video linkup
In-store advice for online customers: Go Instore's technology brings Ribble's online shoppers into the store via video linkup

Goodbye retailer, hello brand

“We’ve definitely moved away from being a retailer to become a brand,” explains Smallwood, who is keen for Ribble to be viewed as a lifestyle or tech brand. It is a reason why its stores include one at Mailbox Birmingham, and another near Apple and Tesla at Bluewater shopping centre.

Describing the competitive landscape Ribble experienced as a retailer, he adds: “If you had an account with a distributor you had access to the same products we could get.

“It came down to price or where you rank on Google. The retail price was coming down, digital acquisition costs were growing because we had to rank highly on Google, and there was not a lot left in the middle.”

Alongside private equity owner, True Capital, and the rest of the senior team, Smallwood has carved out a business plan that places the Ribble brand at the heart of the proposition. It also talks up Ribble’s customisation focus – the options in the online bike builder mean four billion different styles of bike can be designed by its customers.

“Just because the bike industry does things a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s right,” Smallwood says, who sees room for five or six more UK Ribble stores spread across the country.

“That’s how we see retail – we don’t see the way we sell a bike as the same as everyone else. It’s a customer journey that complements our online offering, and every bike is bespoke and built to order with the customer having the choice of multiple components.”

He adds: “Ribble can be the number one British premium bike brand, and from there we can make inroads internationally.”

Read the Ribble Bluewater store review – part of Essential Retail’s new Top of the Pop-Ups series.