How the world’s oldest bike shop is more relevant than ever as bike retail changes

Bright, branded and coffee blended – Pearson is the template of what the bike retail world is fast embracing. The family-owned business goes further than just a barista and nice bikes, though. CyclingIndustry.News popped along to the Sheen branch to talk to director William Pearson about his vision for what the modern bike shop should offer customers…

At 157 years since its inception, Pearson Cycles lays claim to being the oldest bike shop anywhere in the world. With such deep heritage you’d expect they’d dwell on it a little. Not one bit. Short of some nostalgic photography by the café seating and a 1930s-dated Raleigh receipt print in the physiotherapy area, you’d never guess.

The contrasts between the Pearson of today and the foundations laid by the metallurgist founders in the 1860s are stark, but there’s one theme that hasn’t changed. The family firm has always been able to spot an opportunity. In the early days the Sutton-based business thrived on its reputation as a blacksmith. Based at the foot of a hill on the main High Street, Pearson’s founders initially specialised in repairs for the traders moving through with goods aboard horse and cart. With the bicycle requiring less food and thus less maintenance costs, Pearson was quick to tune into the emergence of a new market within which his business could quickly become a specialist. Pearson Cycles was born and through the early 1900s the next generation began to make hay with the first own-brand bike, the Pearson Endeavour.

Though the Endeavour no longer features as a model, the Pearson own-brand to this day remains the core of the business, featuring not only on bikes, but having in relatively recent years made its way onto own-label clothing and bike cleaning solution, among other lines.

“We’re a data-heavy business,” starts Pearson. “From years of specialising in bike pearson bikesfitting we have a wealth of knowledge behind what I guess you could call house geometries. Our own-label bikes ship globally, so it’s not a one size fits all approach, but often we find our off the peg builds do provide an excellent foundation.”

Having learned from pioneers in bike fitting methodology, Phil Cavell and Julian Wall, Pearson was early to the party with a Cyclefit licence. No more than six months after opening Pearson was drawing in bike fitting business.

“It was rare five years ago to offer a comprehensive fit, but in my mind it’s the pinnacle of the business and absolutely necessary for the customer we target. It’s still not a speciality that’s widely available and in the forefront of the minds of customers investing well in cycling. My hope is that we’re not too far away from this being a regulated part of the business,” says Pearson.

At the time of our visit appointments for a fit were tied up for the following three weeks, which is “typical of a January”, we were told. At £195 for a one-to-one booking, that’s a welcome chunk of revenue for the business.

“I think for many a bike fit is a second bike purchase add on,” says Pearson. “Once the customer is embedded within cycling and understands their interaction with a bike better then we tend to get a higher rate of uptake. It’s a hard sell at times, but it’s one of the best value purchases you can make in selecting the perfect bike.”

But it’s not just high-end road cyclists buying into bike fitting. The shop has been seeing an increasing trend toward commuting cyclists seeing the benefits.

treatment room
One of two treatment rooms to assess cyclists with medical concerns, often ahead of bike fits

“I recently did a fit on a spin instructor who funnily enough didn’t otherwise cycle. He was experiencing issues while teaching, so we resolved the issues upstairs at the shop. For other customers we will often find they roll in on very nice bikes already and just need to get the most out of their saddle time with a few tweaks. The performance cyclists aside, we’ve a diverse mix of customer – everyone from Gordon Ramsey to parents looking for a pram tyre.”

Lining the halls of the store’s upper level are certificates from the General Chiropractic Council, among other medical institutions. Staff members have skillsets you’ll not typically find in a bike shop. Ricky, one of the store’s bike fitters, was a qualified Osteopath prior to joining. There’s also two treatment rooms and the ability to test a customer’s VO2 range on site. Coming shortly will be power lab training sessions held alongside coaches from the business.

Very little about the store’s upper level is traditional, but if you fit the profile of somebody giving  their all to cycling, Pearson has the means to take your training to the next level. The store even hosts up to four pilates classes a week in a room that also doubles up as a miniature showroom.

The scientific approach, paired with own-label goods are all part of a strategy to “internet proof” the business, we were told. That’s not to say that Pearson isn’t interested in online trade.

“One of our strategic investments for the year ahead is to develop the Pearson brand online. For many of our customers their first experience of the brand is online, so we want to convert more of those visitors. Click and collect has become a big driver of online trade.”

Seeing the own-label goods as a distinguishing feature of the business, Pearson warns that while having proved successful for his family, such a model is not for everyone.pearson clothing

“If you’re a hobbyist in this business selling on industry typical margins you’re unlikely to strike it rich, so I can see why there’s increasing interest,” explains Pearson. “Own brand is certainly better margin wise, but there are huge risks. It can go very wrong, so you need to ensure the product is built well and unique. You must have insurances and be prepared to spend a great amount of resource just on assembly of your bikes. Bike sales represent 50% of our overall takings, with an element of bespoke finishing on around a quarter of those builds.”

Around 400 house-designed bikes a year arrive from Taiwan. To date the emphasis has been on metal frames, but for 2017 we were told of two new high-spec carbon builds landing. Deeper into 2018 and a “Storck level” aero road bike is on the drawing board.

With the risk of committing so much resource to own brand thus far going well for Pearson the retailer has plans to export chunks of its portfolio. Thus far the business has focused on markets generally receptive to British brands. In Japan a distributor for the clothing and accessories portfolio has been recruited, but bikes may not follow just yet, we were told.

“Considered purchases are difficult to sell and there’s more risk of such stock sitting around longer,” says Pearson on choosing what to export. “The impulsive, knowledge-led and convenience shoppers are those for which we see the greatest potential. Bikes are very much like a car, you have to try them out.”

Less considered revenue streams have long interested Pearson, who has intentionally kept a flexible definition of what exactly a bike shop should offer. To mark the Tour of California in 2017 the store will host a wine and cheese tasting evening alongside a local specialist. Though a charity event held for the benefit of the Royal Marsden and Duchene UK, such events are key to pulling in locals, enthusiast or otherwise.

Pearson is currently recruiting for staff. Fancy working in the world’s oldest (but super modern) bike shop? Apply here.

pearson heritage