Mary Portas on women, retail and cycle shops

How to make bike shops more inviting for women? Ask Mary Portas.

Hannah Walker

Woman, shopping (see *footnote) .

I’m in a room packed with bike shop owners at the Zyro Cyclevision 2015 expo, listening to a talk by retail and branding expert Mary Portas, and it is Q&A time.

Shop owner: “Mary, what’s the best way to make bike shops less intimidating for women?’

Mary: “Scented candles?”

There followed a short pause while the audience – probably 90% men – took a moment to wonder if she was being serious, followed by some nervous laughter when they realised she wasn’t. So, Mary had arrived with her sense of humour dialled to super-sharp, as well as a shed load of great advice based on her extensive experience in brand communication.

When I heard from cycle parts and accessories distributors Zyro that she was giving the talk I had begged for a ticket: Portas’ creative reputation is legendary – and it’s been cemented with her Queen of Shops series on C4: indeed she kicked off her talk with this:

Mary Portas is often a controversial figure, and she’s not a cyclist – but she is an expert in retail. So what could she tell the crowd of bike shop owners?

The bottom line? Great retailing is all about customer experience: “Put people in the centre of your business,” she began. “Inspire them and they will come”.

Research shows that 61% of people prefer shopping in a shop to online – if the shopping experience is done well. What’s more, 40% will spend more money than they planned to in a shop, while 25% do the same on line.

However now that most customers’ initial research ahead of a purchase is done online, so the shop’s role is changing to being a place of discovery and entertainment where the staff are advisors and specialists.

“We remember physical experiences better than online ones,” she tells us, encouraging a ‘play’ approach that the Apple store, for instance, has mastered so well.

“Your sales team are your product ambassadors, and the shop is your showroom, so deliver something unique,” she continued. “And employ happy staff!”. In other words, you can teach someone how to service a fork fairly easily – teaching them to be an engaging, smiley, beacon of joy who customers can’t get enough of may be a bit more tricky. Finally, it is essential to acknowledge people as they walk through the door – I think we’ve all visited plenty of cycle stores where that just doesn’t happen.

‘Delivering happiness’ is a wonderful ethos that sums up modern retail: Rapha – with its feel-good videos and lifestyle ethos – has nailed this perfectly, so that shopping almost feels second to the community they have created (I fully accept that some cyclists regard Rapha merely as pushers of overpriced padded pants – but, as Portas pointed out, you can’t please the whole market. Just know who your customer is and concentrate on making them happy).

She also talked about investing in social media, bloggers and brand ambassadors who are recognised by their peers before you pay for advertising, and building a community using everything from local events and drop-in evenings, to booking one to one appointments.


So what about women? Well, here’s why I believe getting women into your store matters: there are only so many men who will get into cycling and we’re heading for saturation point – women, meanwhile, are taking it up in droves. Also, we love shopping.

“Put women at ease,” Portas suggested (though not with scented candles, obviously). “Women enjoy shopping that is an intimate experience, that feels free and easy, and they like guidance. So, make your store user friendly and think about the language you use to describe your product” (I think Waterstones on-shelf book reviews, written by staff, do this well).

‘And take a look outside the industry and instead consider how fashion and beauty brands, for instance, sell to women, and how women get fashion advice.”

So, if you spot a bike shop guy (beard, a race T-shirt and an oily rag in his back pocket) browsing the shelves of Space NK, Top Shop, Pret a Manger, House of Fraser’s beauty hall, as well as and Net-A-Porter online, put it down to some astute retail research.

*Footnote: This picture of Hannah Walker was taken for a project I worked on for the Matrix Vulpine women’s racing team launch. The idea was to put a put cycling into a women’s context, so we headed into upmarket beauty store Space NK to shoot some pictures. Although Hannah and I were officially working, not shopping, neither of us could resist leaving the store without perfume (Hannah) and a lipstick (me): the power of great retail!

One comment

  1. Jean

    Have some organized bike rides that aren’t necessarily spandex wearing and informal sessions on bike mechanics, etc. for women. It is noticeable in some bike shops that some apparel inventory is dominantly for men. Though some women don’t care (men’s stuff just doesn’t fit me since I’m petite).

    Get the bike shops with a woman staff out into the schools ..put women in the instructor role on bike mechanics and bike skills. Partner with the local advocacy cycling organization for this. It’s a long term investment….but make sure the bike shop has bikes..for families.


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