BY COLLEEN PATTERSON
Heritage Bicycles General Store is a perfect case study in smart small business growth. It’s a bike shop to be sure, but its front-of-house is equally known for serving up award-winning coffee, having embraced the complementary culture on day one. Already, you should sense the potential for small business growth.
As owner Michael Salvatore explains, “When we were in New York starting out, we couldn’t afford retail so we did a lot of street fairs and festivals where people are open to shopping with food in hand. The cultures overlap and seasonally it balances out.”
Thus, the idea emerged for a unique genre of business: the bike cafe.
Today, the Heritage flagship store boasts plenty of retail—t-shirts, helmets, accessories, jewelry crafted from bike parts, the gamut; two sister shops, and most recently, the addition of a walk up coffee bar housed in the lobby of the iconic Lawrence House. It’s only been five years since the original shop opened its door, but one could easily argue that such rapid small business growth was inevitable.
One of the quickest, sure-fire methods of jumpstarting small business growth is to diversify your product offering, fill gaps in the marketplace, and continually challenge yourself to cover all the needs of your customers. Heritage Bicycles is exemplary in each of these respects.
Here are a few more advantages the team at Heritage has unlocked along the way.
Offset Your Slow Season
It’s tough to sell bikes when your customers are busy shoveling their cars out from beneath four feet of snow. Chicago winters are brutal. Coffee other the hand, never loses its luster. No matter how drastically the the temperature falls, cozying up in a warm, familial environment adorned with 20th century crown molding, pendant theater lights, hand-built tables, the smell of coffee, and the chatter of friendly neighbors is always worth the trip.
It’s not just the slow winters. A bike shop has to contend in an industry with unusually high barriers to access.
“With bikes you don’t get any second chances with customers. Even with commuters and leisure riders, you don’t get second chances,” says Derek Lewis, bicycle operations manager.
“Our bikes have to be right. They have to last a long time. They can’t be too high maintenance. They’re going to look great. When it goes out the door with our name on it, it has to be perfect.”
Coffee, on the other hand, is an evergreen neighborhood staple. The product is timeless, widely appreciated, and a huge draw. Good coffee drives foot traffic year-round.
That’s not to say that you can pair coffee with anything to propel small business growth — but it is important to consider your tangential, complementary markets as you consider expanding your services.
Improve Customer Service and Relationships
Back to the food in hand. The key to identifying opportunities for expansion all boils down to your customers’ basic needs. It’s a lovely idea to offer someone coffee while they’re waiting for their flat tire to be fixed. Who’s going to turn that down? Heritage, in particular understands that many of its customers are beginners, so it began to offer classes.
“We like to offer the experience of assembling the bike and provide a little window into how mechanical sympathy comes into play. Our bikes are pretty robust but they take some touch and feel to work on properly,” says Lewis.
With three to four people per bike, the classes transforms “a bunch of parts on the table” to a fully-made custom build which typically everyone takes turns riding around the cafe upon completion. Taking a customer from zero to a custom bike is sometimes a struggle but the customers enjoy it, as do the employees of Heritage.
“We don’t necessarily teach anyone how to ride but we do have plenty of customers who buy a bike and they’re like, ‘aw, this my first bike since I was 5 years old,’” says Lewis, “which is a little terrifying for us. But we have an alley they can practice in. And of course, we build every single bike from the ground up and they’re involved every step of the way, picking their tire color, saddle, handlebar, gearing options, everything. At first, even if they don’t care that much, everyone eventually gets really into it.”
Depth of offering is a reflection of the level of connection you establish with your customers. When you meet more of your customers’ needs on a holistic level, you render yourself indispensable, a pantheon one-stop-shop which they’ll likely recommend to friends.
Find a Niche and Watch your Small Business Growth Skyrocket
Not only has Heritage cultivated a community loyal following through its personal service and supplementary classes, they’ve opened shop online. There’s a catch though. Ask anyone involved in the bike industry and they’ll tell you, the online marketplace is cutthroat.
“There’s very little pricing structure,’ says Lewis. “It’s tough to sell any bike that’s over the $400 price range, especially to any audience of everyday commuters who aren’t aware of the quality and value of our bikes.”
Articulating the value of a custom-build bike to a mass audience is quite the challenge, he says.
“We’re in this middle no-man’s-land: we don’t operate through dealer networks and we don’t have the margins of mass market brands that get all of their parts from overseas, but our bikes are of a higher quality.”
The solution Heritage arrived at: focus on selling designer, specialty items online to bicycle experts and enthusiasts who can immediately recognize the quality of their parts.
“It works well, gets our name out there,” says Lewis. In other words, it’s critical to their small business growth strategy.
In fact, this past Christmas, the team at Heritage got a phone call from one former, happy customer based in Colorado who wanted to order an entire fleet for every employee at his company. “That’s one of the coolest Christmas presents you can get, ever, from age three to adulthood, as far as I’m concerned. That project was fun.”
There you have it. Income diversification is as simple as maintaining both an online and brick-and-mortar store — but you have to be aware of both your audiences. There are some products which, according to the dictates of your customers, only sell well online and vice versa. Do you market research first.
When properly executed, diverse revenue streams act as insurance against hard times, or in the case of Heritage, rough winters. It can deepen your connection to your customers as you continually stretch your offering to account for their varying needs and push your business to pursue more creative avenue for profit.
Salvatore hit on a remarkable idea in marrying two complementary cultures each with polar-opposite busy seasons. From individual custom builds and whole bike fleets, to coffee brewing classes, and breakfast pastries, Heritage has built itself into an indispensable fixture of the neighborhood.
“Being a bike manufacturer is a pretty tough gig. It’s tough to take a step back with all the work that we do to realize how far we’ve come but it’s kind of amazing,” says Lewis.
When I asked him what he attributed his small business growth to, he had two words for me: “hard work.”
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