The man of mystery heads to five bicycle shops in Hampshire in search of a commuter bike for around £350...

BikeBiz’s Mystery Shopper heads south to Portsmouth

Cycle Surgery
Located in Port Solent’s marina/retail park outside Portsmouth, Cycle Surgery enjoys a prominent spot and shares building space with Runners Need and Snow + Rock. The cycling store surprisingly didn’t take up a large section of the outlet, but nevertheless there were plenty of bikes squeezed in with plenty of commuter options.

It took a few moments to be seen with the staffer very busy providing advice on the phones. Leaping in during a break in the barrage of calls, Mystery Shopper pounced on the counter and found the staffer willing and able to provide lots of advice and general chat about bikes.

This salesman really did go into depth and explained there were a wealth of options – like a road bike if I fancied dabbling in a bit of racing, or even a cyclocross bike. The enthusiastic assistant seemed to have ridden each of the bikes he discussed which gave his views weight. Unfortunately the staffer did play with fire and provided probably too much sizing info, potentially losing my custom to an online competitor, though he did point me to the Cycle Surgery site. He explained C2W, financing and a price matching promise.

Velocity Bikes (Star Store)
With a big frontage, Velocity was easy to spot along a busy road. The salesman greeted me and offered help as soon as I stepped in – a classic (and welcome) IBD trait. After hearing my ‘commuter bike for around £350’ brief he wasted no time in identifying a Ridgeback. The no-nonsense salesman drilled through the relevant features without blinding me with science, concentrating on the benefits that the bike came with, such as ready-fitted mudguards, adjustable stem and low key colour scheme stopping it being a theft magnet. He also hit the price point more or less on the nose. He went on to boost my faith in the product by explaining more about the brand, explaining the commuter/hybrid market was one the British brand has served well for decades. The new bike in question wasn’t in store, but working from a catalogue he underlined that no other bike was offering the standard of components and general quality.

While he was clearly a man on a mission and honed in on one bike, he was also happy to answer my general questions and was happy to educate, with another staff member chipping in with help during his pitch.

One of three located on the South Coast, Portsmouth’s Cycleworld probably sees a fair deal of passing trade, placed on a busy thoroughfare with handy car parking spaces out front. The store did let me slip into the shop without being greeted while the staff were busy. With most of the bikes on display in a showroom downstairs there was ample opportunity for a customer to head straight down there and – as the showroom is out of sight of the counter – linger there for some time. Shop layout aside, I approached the counter again and the friendly staffer was keen to get out and help. While he didn’t initially have the smoothest sales patter, his pitch grew in confidence and he presented a wide array of options before helping pare the choices down to a handful of Giants that were on the money, price point-wise. Like Velocity’s salesman, the staffer at Cycleworld keenly explained the benefits of the brand, providing ample reasons why it was worth parting with my cash for and bringing it back to practical points – like well designed wheels that won’t buckle at the first sight of pot holes. I left the shop with a catalogue to mull over.

If there’s one thing Mystery Shopper likes it is good signage, the type that helps sell the product even when there is no staff in sight or free to help. At this Halfords branch, in the Ocean Park retail park, there was excellent signage, explaining features and giving a customer something to chew on, plus some ‘offers’ too. A few circles of the displays didn’t prompt any human assistance, however, but one staffer walking past was easy to flag down. He was slightly flummoxed by a broad remit, with the shop stocking plenty of options well below £350. Initially he hinted I could go to the website and read user reviews to help pare down my choices, but after some discussion did arrive at a recommendation of which models were most appropriate to hit my brief, largely in the Carrera range. He discussed he had sold one this morning and advised that I wouldn’t really benefit from hitting the top end of my budget, and I didn’t need to spend that much for a good A-to-B bike. While it might be tempting to criticise him for not upselling, I suspect that, in truth, a customer would be happy to receive that kind of advice.

Portsmouth Cycle Exchange
As the name suggests, a good portion of Portsmouth Cycle Exchange floor space is given over to second hand bikes. Greeted as soon as I came in again, I was informed there were no second hand bikes hitting my remit, but there were new commuter bikes in the showroom, to which he grabbed the keys and led me out to. He immediately got down to business and showed me one bike that hit the brief. After visiting a number of shops which were keen to talk about brands, I questioned the brand in question saying I hadn’t heard of it. He replied he had a bike worth over £2,000 and said it was probably made in the same factory.

There were a number of other brands in the showroom close to my brief, which I was shown after asking for more options. While not overly familiar with the differences between the bikes in question, advising he doesn’t usually deal with the new bikes in the showroom, the staffer was clearly an enthusiast. The store scores extra marks for being the only one on the day to offer me a test ride (though to be fair some of the others didn’t have appropriate stock in).

Coopers Bikes was shut on the day of the visit and Mystery Shopper ran out of time to get to Haslemere Cycles. Happily, there was a good standard in the bike shops of Portsmouth, a town that has a good deal of infrastructure and seemingly a thriving bike retail sector too, judging by the number of bike shops. Coincidence?

Of the shops that Mystery Shopper visited, it was a difficult call a ‘winner’. On the day there was a clear split between shops offering recommendations to those happy to broadly discuss the choices available. If you wanted to get a no-nonsense, highly focused bit of advice then you’d be well served by Velocity.

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