A surprise star store edges it by a nose, but which of our five visits took the prize?

Mystery Shopper horses around in Cheltenham

In 2006 Cheltenham was said to be the most desirable property location in Britain, perhaps that’s why you’ll find such a wealth of bike shops to choose from in the region. Mystery Shopper visits a handful of those occupying the town, as well as a dark horse…

Williams Cycles
One of the few stores with customer parking out front, this visit came during a high footfall time, in which Mystery Shopper could observe a mother seeking a BMX being given some advice that gets our thumbs up.
I made a lap of the store prior to catching a staff member at the till and although still busy, a polite request happily kept me browsing for another moment. When seen I was granted his full attention. To pick a highlight, I was warned of the imminent model year switch and thus the likelihood that stock will soon be shifting. This was used to suggest a deposit should I settle on a bike.
One moment that threw me was the suggestion that my budget of £900 was ‘too high’ for a hardtail. This led to our chat, though productive, focusing on a model at just £600. My emphasis on durability obviously hit home, as the assistant did do his utmost to re-assure me of Specialized’s reputation, build quality and support.
The closure of the sale revolved around a catalogue and while that’s always handy, it allows me to easily browse the same product online.

Leisure Lakes
Another high footfall store, with plenty of busy staff, waiting to be seen in Leisure Lakes is less of an ordeal thanks to the well labelled bikes, each detailed by spec and carrying finance details.
One of the town’s two 29er fans, the staffer contrasted and compared a Cube and a Lapierre bang on budget well, reading the signals I gave off and thus settling on the former of the two bikes as the more likely to satisfy my brief.
I was given jargon-free and valid pros and cons while discussing wheel size. If it were agility I were after, it was suggested I opt for 26 and, for comfort, the 29er.
Largely the bike was sold on Cube’s generous spec over competitor brands, as well as the handlebar activated fork lockout typically not seen elsewhere at my price point.
I left with a Leisure Lakes branded catalogue and suggestion I return to ‘sling a leg over’ come pay day.
Sizing information wasn’t revealed, so buying elsewhere online would be made more difficult.

Flow Store
You can’t help but enter Flow with a smile, the door handle is an old crank arm. Genius. Though not the largest shop in the world, presentation and use of space was top notch, even two central beams were made use of to display small parts and hats.
The assistant was immediately engaging, striking up friendly conversation based around the product I’d chosen to browse, offering opinions and information when needed and subsequently discussing his own old school Raleigh as Mystery Shopper took interest.
As sales experiences go, this is best described as ‘friendly service’, not too pushy, not too stand offish. There was a few good suggestions with phrases such as ‘if you like that, you might like’ effectively used and on one occasion, a fresh delivery yet to be placed on the shelves pulled from behind the counter to make the most of my time in the store.
With a website to go live shortly, the helper passed me a leaflet on my exit and asked that I check back in shortly.

Cheltenham Cycles
Clearly a staunch 29er advocate, Cheltenam Cycles big wheel stock far outweighed the traditional stock, which it was explained was down to the staff’s faith in the pros of the larger diameter. That level of trust in product is, of course, fantastic, but as these things are often subjective, it seems dangerous to write off the 26-inch just yet. Especially now 650b seems to be emerging as a challenger to both.
Mystery Shopper’s opinion aside, it was refreshing to hear such enthusiasm for a potentially market changing product. A Trek and a Merida, both under budget by £150 and £50, respectively, were focused on, with the suggestion that should I wish to buy higher up the line, product is quickly available.
Wheel size and brand reputation dominated the conversation at times, while discussion on fork lockout and other details were prompted. It’s hard not to be impressed by the unwavering support for the bigger wheel shown.
Nitpicking, perhaps, but the offer of an earmarked catalogue and suggestion of ‘more research online’ felt dangerous to me.

Halfords – (Star Store)
Well, where do I start. The aforementioned dark horse has more edged it by a nose. Firstly, this was like no other Halfords experience I’ve had before. Sure, there have been pleasant surprises, but this was the Halfords you see portrayed in the television adverts.
On entry I was stunned to find a staff member facing anyone coming through the door. This helper, on hearing my brief, took me to the store’s sales manager for bikes, who proceeded to take me direct to the Boardman line. En route I’d noted a new brighter, organised POS, a big improvement and one which I’d hope will be rolled out to Halfords stores nationwide.
Back to our bike manager, who by this time was in full flow reciting the value aspects of the Boardman line over competing brands. I can’t fault his pitch. Establishing early a light XC use, a budget, which he tested once or twice and closing with some good incentives to buy aftercare, it was top stuff. To round it off, he checked stock levels and asked if I’d like to secure a bike with a deposit prior to me leaving.

First and foremost, none of the independent stores disappointed, each had their own character, approach and all very capable in differentiating their offering over competitors. I have to, on this occasion, give this branch of Halfords the credit it deserves. I left genuinely surprised and despite the assistant leaving no stone un-turned during my questioning, I have one more – what if all branches of this national were this strong?
Halfords promised big changes in its last quarterly report. If this store is an example of what’s achievable then, like it or not, the competition just got a whole lot stronger. That’s in terms of customer service, store presentation and the staff themselves – which on this occasion were immaculate.

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