What’s it like going from traditional bike shop to workshop only?

Ever on the lookout for mavericks in the bike business, CI.N thought it worth a catch up with a bike shop owner, turned shopping centre-based workshop exclusive business. Steve Baskerville talks us through the Bike Spanner business model…

Tell us a bit about your decision to close your retail store some years ago – what factors drove this?

Partly personal, partly financial, partly circumstances. A huge roundabout right outside our former shop was planned, meaning the shop would be very hard to get to for six months. I knew the business couldn’t survive that. I also had a health scare which meant I had to slow down dramatically for a period of time. I’d gotten tired running a shop too, I felt the need for a big change.

I’m not going to do the modern thing of pretending these are the only reason though, which seems the norm with the current shop closures, obviously financials played a big part. I just couldn’t see a future the bike shop model I’ve known anymore and knew in my heart that the business had run its course.

Looking back, after nearly two years out of it, I can see now that the over-riding fact was that I just wasn’t very good at it. There were some aspects I was good at, really good at, but a lot I was just rubbish at. In retrospect, if I’d brought in the right people and stepped back from certain aspects the shop might still be going now, but given how things have panned out I’ve absolutely no regrets.

Was the decision to move to a workshop only model based purely on the profitability you’d seen in your prior workshop?

Mainly it was the belief that stand alone workshops have a great future. There are a lot of other factors in the mix, but the old saying “the internet can’t fix your bike” rings true, louder than ever.

It’s perhaps unusual for a bike retailer to set up in a shopping centre. Why does the formula work for a workshop operation?

One word: footfall. We get 40,000 people past our door weekly. Do I need to say more?

Do you retail any goods from Bike Spanner?

We carry a bit, not much. Space is a premium so we have to pick our ranges very carefully. Mostly it’s the sort of things you sell at the time of a service, mudguards, lights, etc. that we also pick-up the odd retail sale for too. We carry some maintenance products, cleaners and the like. These do well at certain times of year, but it’s all to complement our core business which is repairs.

To what extent has passing footfall helped get the word out about the business?

Massively. It’s why we pay the rents we pay for space. All our online marketing activity and website is handled by our agency, Caffeine Injection, and they do a lot for us and it’s very effective, but our workshop is open plan with glass walls. Nothing beats having thousands of people a week see you repairing bikes day in day out.

You once told us the layout of your workshop is akin to the way McDonalds serves burgers – set up in the most efficient way possible. What’s the formula?

There is no one formula. It’s all about working with the space you have, minimising the time spent moving from one area to another and ensuring as far as possible that everything is to hand. We use an entirely automated workshop management system, which used to be controlled from a single computer. This meant the mechanics all needed access the computer when carry out service work. Everything is now done on iPads, so the mechanics need to move around less and don’t have to wait for access to the computer.

How many staff are working day to day? 

In winter one to two, depending on day and workload. Over summer we’ve three to four. We have an off-site workshop for the over-flow. It’s mothballed in winter, but will be readied for operation from about April/May. It costs us peanuts in rent, so it’s very cost-effective, even if it sits dormant 7 months of the year.

Why did you opt for a physical instead of mobile service presence?

The plan was always to expand into mobile, but I just couldn’t make the number stack up, even now. If you’re the owner/mechanic then it can work. If you have to employ people, I personally can’t see how it works. Not saying it can’t work, just I can’t figure it out!

What advice would you give others considering tipping their shop floor balance in favour of service?

There are so many variables it’s impossible to give any blanket advice. For instance, turning the old shop unit into a service-focused business would have failed because the location was rubbish. From what I see the workshop is still a massively under exploited part of a lot of bike shops, but then, for Bike Spanner, that’s no bad thing!

There is also a lot to be said for people trusting standalone workshops more than they trust bike shops. We hear it a lot in the workshop; they’ve taken their bike to a shop who have advised them to scrap and replace it. At the back of the customers head is a voice saying “well you would say that, you just want to sell me a bike”. Is there any truth in that? From what we’ve seen, no. In most cases we’ve advised the same, but the fact is the doubt was there, so it’s a tough one for most shops.

Workshop aside, what other service led work do you undertake to monetise the business?

Not much in truth. We have an extremely active events schedule, most weekends we’re doing something, but it’s almost all to market the business as opposed to directly put money in the till. We do pop-up shops at certain times of the year, for instance a Muc-Off gift shop at Christmas, and these are all about the sales on the sale, but most actively is to promote the workshop, not take money.

How do you calculate your pricing and what extras are chargeable?

Pricing is dead simple. Overheads divided by estimated job time plus required profit. It’s not rocket science. We charge for everything. If we can allocate a cost to anything we do, or use, then it gets added to the bill. We have a set fee applied to every job to cover all those things you can’t really cost, like hand cleaner, blue roll, tea bags, etc. At the moment it’s a standard £1.50 per job and it’s explained on the job sheet and at time of costing the repair. No one has ever questioned it. Essentially it’s free money, and when you add it up over the year, it’s a substantial amount.