If there’s a retail niche that would appear to be protected from the inroads of ecommerce, it’s bicycle sales. The customer experience in bicycle retail has two components that are particularly brick-and-mortar friendly: fitting and road testing. As a result, only two percent of bicycle sales are transacted online. This is why, as a customer experience consultant and inveterate customer experience “refiner,” I take pleasure in the way that a new company, the curiously-named roll: Bicycle Company, has replicated the local bike shop experience online by offering personalized fit, an extended home-testing period, and speedy gratification (all orders are created and shipped within 48 hours). They’ve also moved beyond the brick-and-mortar experience in ways that exploit the power of ecommerce when it’s married to custom manufacturing. Customers choose from three basic bike models (“Sport,” City,” and “Adventure”), then further customize their bicycle by using an online bike-builder tool to select from 12 frame and component color combinations.
It might sound mundane (and a little sneaky), but customer experience borrowing is one of the master techniques I recommend when I’m consulting on customer experience design and innovation; and, in fact, the roll: Bicycle Company customer experience borrows unabashedly from noncompetitive companies. It owes debts to Amazon and Zappos for the standards they’ve set in easy shopping/easy returns and to Apple for the glorious MacBook “unboxing” experience, which roll: Bicycle Company has emulated in the way it packages its bikes to improve both shipping and the customer’s experience of receiving a new bicycle.
What follows is my interview with founder Stuart Hunter. Let’s dig in.
Micah Solomon: How did you come up with the idea of selling bicycles online?
Stuart Hunter, CEO: First, I was aware that the consumer experience is shifting toward a tailored, omnichannel experience in other retail sectors, and that this was influencing customer expectations in the bike channel as well. Second, there is a shift happening in the industry right now, as the “Big Bike” brands in the U.S. scramble to retain market share in the face of a flat market, a declining number of stores (from 6,000 down to under 4,000 in ten years), and changing consumer shopping habits. Speaking more personally, nobody was building the type of bikes that I myself wanted to ride every day, bikes that had the same ride qualities and attention to detail as a custom-built race bike, but that didn’t cost a fortune.
Solomon: How have you’ve refined your online customer experience to compensate for the limitations of ecommerce?
Hunter: Fit and road-test are essentials here, so it was important that we build a simple tool–we call it “Perfect Fit”–that people could self-navigate to ensure the correct fit of their bikes. As far as road-test, our “50 days to ride” guarantee is key. And developing our “Flatpack” box for shipping simplifies home assembly [which compensates for the reality that roll: can’t set your bicycle up for you in person, as would a brick-and-mortar-bike shop].
Solomon: Are there ways in which your customer experience is actually superior to the traditional bike shop experience?
Hunter: Our entire online approach distills the experience of buying a bike in the most transparent and compelling way possible, putting the customer in control of the process so that they can design their bike, have it built to order, fit to them, and shipped for free. Having said that, what distinguishes us starts with the bikes themselves. We don’t limit ourselves by following model years; this allows us to make changes and improvements constantly, and we’re personally testing the bikes to destruction, riding them every day, and sweating every component and detail.
Solomon: Tell me about a challenge that stumped you, at least temporarily, when creating roll: Bicycle Company.
Hunter: How to ship bikes is a major challenge, and we’ve invested a lot of time and effort to overcome this. This is a problem that has two faces: “outbound” [the company perspective] and “arrival” [how it appears to the customer upon arrival]. On the outbound side, bikes are large, heavy items that are expensive for us to pack and ship. On the arrival side—seeing this from a customer’s perspective—there’s fear of shipping cost, or of difficulty in assembly, or of what happens if everything’s not quite right. Our solution to both sides of this challenge is our Flatpack box, which is more akin to a laptop case than a traditional bike box. On the logistical, “outbound” side, the Flatpack box represents something that is as compact and efficient as possible. On the arrival/customer side, the Flatpack approach offers a great “unboxing” experience that affords the customer easy assembly at home, using a single tool that’s included in the box. Its compact size also allows us to offer free shipping, removing that final barrier—shipping cost—that has stood in the way of people ordering bikes online in the past.
Solomon: Do you have any final customer experience hints for other entrepreneurs?
Hunter: I see businesses getting lost in focus groups and in the battlefield of fighting for consensus. The important challenge, I think, is much more personal: to figure out what works for a single person. Make your product and experience the best it can possibly be, and then go find enough people who share your vision to connect with and to build your community around. Know that you are your own best customer; if something doesn’t work for you, chances are it won’t work for somebody else either.