Cycling has been quick to realize the direct-to-consumer power of the web. For Ribble Cycles, the ride has gone full circle, from a shop in Preston in the north of England, via mail order, a pioneering online bike builder, to today, a blend of online and high-end physical stores. But as the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of Ribble reveals, the online platform is the frame that the entire business rides on.
The showroom is an extension of the website. We are a digital-first business, and everything is assessed by our digital performance.
Matthew Lawson has been CDO for Ribble Cycles since February 2016, three months after investment house True acquired the firm. Lawson says:
We are a destination business, and most people come as part of a considered purchase, and we know that our customers expect an on and offline offer.
Throughout 2021 Ribble opened stores both in its homeland of Lancashire and Bluewater close to London, Nottingham, Birmingham and the latest in Bristol. The new stores differ from many bicycle retailers, the flagship store in the Ribble Valley features one of the UK's largest 4K screens, bikes are mounted on plinths so customers can walk about the entire bike, just as automotive customers can walk around a vehicle, and product details are not hung from the handlebars on cards. Lawson explains:
We can bring them an experience that is heightened, none of the agents are incentivized, the aim is to get the right bike for the customer. We also have our Ribble Live, a video connection through to the Ribble Valley store, so that if you cannot get to us then we can further leverage the asset of our existing stores.
The set up of the physical stores is, therefore, a platform for the online store, and vice versa. For instance, with the bikes on plinths; this benefits both a customer in store but also filming for a video or live chat. And with cycling for transport increasing by 200%, according to European studies, a new customer base is entering the bike store, a momentum that is not losing its balance, according to Lawson. Lawson adds:
We have been able to build a system that centres around the web platform, including the Point of Sale (POS), even the showroom signage and of course the online store. So it becomes a single view of the customer, supporting marketing, stores, events and our club. The focus being the rising tide raises all boats.
Along for the ride
I joined as part of the True investment, and as owners, they are one of the most supportive private equity firms that I have come across.
Rhe role of CDO has a remit that covers marketing, digital, IT and data, putting web-based operations at the heart of all the key activities that are not assembling a bicycle.
With PE backing, Ribble has refocused on building bikes, which it sells via a direct-to-consumer (DTC) model. DTC has grown rapidly in cycling and counts brands such as Canyon from Germany, Holland's Van Moof ebikes and Commencal of France. Lawson says:
That has been supported by our investors, and it is better to focus on product innovation. That makes it easier for me to build a digital experience on top of good products.
You can't be a master of everything, and the thing that we were passionate about was the bikes. It is really hard to get the premium nature of the bikes across when you have 70% off ads for nutrition products; they just don't go together. We made a choice to walk away from all the third party stock, as we saw the opportunity being the bikes.
As Ribble transitioned back to being a bike manufacturer and DTC retailer, Lawson ensured his team sought inspiration from far and wide, and as a result, both the stores and website feel more akin to Apple. He says:
I actively encourage my team not to look at the competition but to talk to the customer. Innovate and build for the customer.
Marketing and supply
In July of 2021, Ribble burst onto the big screen with an advertising programme during the Tour de France. Lawson says:
As a brand, you have to diversify your marketing mix. Television was a way to make sure that we are reaching audiences that we cannot reach on social media, and it also builds credibility, and we wanted to be associated with the biggest bike event.
We also have Pro-team sponsorship, which allows us to put the product through its paces at an elite level, and that helps our customers. It is a constant engagement strategy as it is all about micro-conversion and having details matters.
Lawson is responsible for an in-house content team that is informing the wide variety of people that engage with a bike brand, whether as road or off road riders, commuters trying to avoid public transport, racing enthusiasts or those still pondering cycling as a way to reduce their impact on the planet.
Cycling and technology have a shared industrial story; although many of the leading brands are from the US or Europe, manufacturing is dominated by Asia. As a result, the supply chain issues following the pandemic and Brexit have led to price inflation and supply shortages across cycling. He adds:
We are not immune to the situation, but due to being DTC, we were able to react to the pandemic demand faster than rivals, and our suppliers confirm this. Everything that we sell on-site is live, so everything is dynamic, while some businesses will not have full stock until 2023.
All Ribble bikes are assembled in the UK, with frames and parts being sourced globally from the key manufacturing hubs of China, Italy and Taiwan.
Lawson has a team of 10 technologists that he says punches well above its weight. Leading a small team in a business that now has a global reach with sites and services in Germany and Australia is all about good prioritisation, the CDO says.
Make sure they know why we are doing what we are doing, and give them autonomy to do the thing that will get the biggest bang for the buck. My day job is to knock down barriers, so no red tape or sign off procedures get in the way.
At the time of the interview, Lawson was moving the enterprise cloud estate from AWS to Google Cloud Platform as he finds Google more responsive. The single online/offline store experience uses the open-source Magento platform, and the CDO is looking to move the Ribble ERP into the cloud.
Back in 2009, I was in the market for a road bike; Ribble offered the ability to configure your own bike, pay for it and have it delivered to your door. That was a breakaway move by Ribble that saw the Lancashire business sprint away from the pack of bike makers and retailers. It was clear to me then that this was a business that understood the role e-commerce would have in cycling, something that was also clear to PE investors.
The move to open physical stores has been a fascinating stage in the Ribble story to watch, but as Lawson says, buying a bike is a ‘considered purchase'. And there is a lot to consider; in the last 25 years, the variety of bike formats, parts and technologies has grown exponentially, which can inhibit the customer experience both online and in-store. With Ribble now trading in Germany as well as further afield, the next summit is one that is beyond digital, it's the technical climb of international trade deals.