‘Tis the season to be jolly, but does the bike trade know as much? BikeBiz’s man of mystery goes in search of a bicycle fit for the Queen, pitting the chain stores against one another in this battle royale…

Mystery Shopper (and the Queen) hit London

Evans Cycles, Victoria
Credit to Evans, the high footfall during my visit was managed incredibly well. Not wanting to interrupt the genuine custom too much I grabbed an assistant and quickly rattled off a brief typical of the 20-something female in search of a bike.

Dutch-style steel bikes were given pros and cons, with the sluggish ride and weight given as examples of why such a build may not be best choice. The always welcome recommendation to spend higher if I were to choose a folder was a clear hint toward a Brompton – available in ‘girly colours’ – which would no doubt please the other half. Colour might not have been the best justification of why more investment is a good thing, but thankfully this was followed by spiel about the domestic manufacturer’s reputation and reknowned build quality.

The assistant pointed me toward the business cards as I gestured to leave, recommending that I email a few links to gauge interest from ‘Mrs Mystery’ before returning to place an order. Very Christmas shopper savvy, I thought.

Cycle Surgery, Victoria
As with Evans, shop floor staff were very pro-active in meeting custom. When it was my turn, the typical Pashley recommendation was rolled out, something which Mystery Shopper expressed concerns might not be the most nimble of rides for navigating London’s busy roads.

Counter to that argument, the assistant pointed out something Mystery Shopper hadn’t considered – the posture of such bikes provides the rider with the ability to easily keep an eye on their ‘blindspot’ – essential for riding in the city. Touché.
Despite the mention of more agile bikes, the hub-geared Pashley was pursued by the assistant, who continued to put my argument to the sword, stating that some, ‘girlier’ girls panic when a chain slips between the cogs, advising me that this isn’t possible with such a build.

To his credit, the assistant had answers to all of my queries and even knew the chain’s London store base well, informing me of a store much closer to my fictional Great Portland Street home. This was pointed out to me in the rear of the house catalogue and I left feeling better informed ahead of a potential purchase.

Specialized, Covent Garden
Fresh to the Covent Garden area is a Specialized Concept Store of which there are just a few in the UK. Mystery Shopper entered during a quiet spell where staff were chatting among themselves, though one broke away as I began to browse.
The helper took time to listen to my brief, though didn’t arrive at a conclusion immediately, oddly showing me a high-slung top-tube hybrid before settling on a low step over build a hundred pounds or so underneath my quoted budget.

Though concise with most answers to my questions, the conversation, I felt, was driven forwards by the customer. The only real point to differentiate this experience from others was the mention of warranty details, which is always reassuring to hear, however brief, for the first-time buyer.

Weight and posture, important to the enjoyment of cycling for females, was touched on briefly, though wasn’t pinned to any model in particular, which might have firmed things up a little when discussing the low-step over bike.

Cycles UK, Harrods
Not by any means Cycles UK’s fault, but Harrods is a nightmare to navigate for the first timer – very little relevant signage meant it took far too long to track down the bike store’s tucked away corner.

Arriving at not the best time, I had to browse for five to ten minutes while staff attended to a broken monitor. When seen, the assistant took a very relaxed approach to selling, opting for a computerised guided tour instead of tutoring this ‘newbie’ through shop floor stock that could have satisfied the brief.

Recommending a Specialized women’s bike, Mystery Shopper took the chance to mention the Covent Garden concept store, to which the assistant quickly advised could be price matched by Cycles UK.

Plus points of the virtual bike tour included the questioning of size constraints of our living space, particularly relevant to the young Londoner. A folding bike was recommended giving Mystery Shopper’s constraints.

On the flipside, a potential ‘package’ on bike, helmet and accessories was scuppered as the assistant became frustrated with the loading speed of his computer.

Action Bikes, Westminster: (Star store)
Perhaps the smaller fish of the crowd, it did take a few moments to be seen in Action Bikes. From the word go, however, the staffer who met me was firing on all cylinders. Though, confessing to selling mostly Pashley Poppys to my quoted brief, he touted a neighbouring Trek as a better thought out solution to a lady’s needs. As the only store of the day to specifically focus on why a bike was suited to the female form, the assistant covered off the obvious comfort features such as posture and a wider saddle, yet furthered his pitch with good knowledge on shorter reach brake levers, among other things.

I was impressed by the detailed knowledge the assistant had of Trek’s investment in women’s bikes, all while selling the model very well on a personal level. Plus points here covered discussion on a lower frame weight and the height of the partner I’m set to surprise on Christmas day. It was, of course, mentioned that a proper sizing up is best, perhaps a deterrent to me buying online.

Action Bikes seemed to go above and beyond the obvious, involving me with a good mix of well thought out questions post-brief.

You may have noticed the lack of independent store visits in this excursion to our capital city – that, perhaps sadly, reflects the terrain in the centre of town nowadays – chain stores dominate any district with financial clout.

It was refreshing to find that, largely, staff were well informed and seemed to be in trained up, or cyclists themselves. These are stores with an intense level of footfall and many times Mystery Shopper was seem immediately following another customer’s departure and if I’m honest, that’s not often the case elsewhere in the country. Good form all round.

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