Chain Reaction Cycles: Inside world’s largest on-line bike shop

Mtbr heads to Northern Ireland to meet people behind this massive operation

Company Spotlight
The CRC showroom and warehouse facility sees a lot of shipping truck traffic.

The CRC showroom and warehouse facility sees a lot of shipping truck traffic (click to enlarge).

It’s fair to say that most (if not all) of us have made some kind of on-line bike-related purchase. Whether it was Clif Bars, a cassette, or a complete bike, there’s no denying the convenience — and sometimes cost savings — when you point, click, and purchase.

But what happens after you enter your credit card details? Who are the people on the other end of the information superhighway tasked with quickly getting you your goodies? Honestly, I’d never given it much thought. Yet I’m always impressed with how a few minutes of web surfing results in a UPS truck pulling into my driveway a couple days later. Like magic, Brown Santa delivers direct to your door.

But… it’s not magic. There’s some serious business logistics behind successful cyber retailers. So Mtbr decided it was time to take a closer look. And who better to learn from than Chain Reaction Cycles, which by their own estimation is the world’s largest on-line bike store based on metrics such as brands in stock (over 500), total skus (around 75,000), orders filled a day (7000), and different countries shipped to (typically 125 a month).

It's hard to comprehend how much product this company moves.

It’s hard to comprehend how much product this company moves (click to enlarge).

They also employ over 650 people and the website receives about 6 million visits a month. The 82-person customer service team is conversant in seven languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, and Portuguese). And when the marketing team blasts out an email, there are 18 different versions to account for the language and local currency of the 1.4 million people in their database. It’s a massively massive operation that, as industry observers know, may soon grow even larger if the impending merger with fellow on-line bike biz giant Wiggle is approved by government regulators.

But numbers, impressive as they may be, only tell part of the story. To dig deeper into the Chain Reaction Cycles story, we boarded a plane at Denver International Airport, and after a spate of delays and re-routes (typical, United), landed in Dublin, Ireland. Ninety minutes of bus travel later we pulled into downtown Belfast in neighboring Northern Ireland, which for those a little behind on their geography, is actually part of the United Kingdom. There to greet us at the bus station was Damien Duggan, Chain Reaction Cycles’ head of international marketing, and as we would find out a few days later, a seriously talented bike rider.

It all started here in 1984.

It all started here in 1984 (click to enlarge).

For most of the next three days, the soft-spoken Duggan served as our tour guide. After a night of jet-lagged sleep, aided by Guinness from the tap of course, stop No. 1 was Chain Reaction’s flagship retail store, which opened in 2011 in suburban Belfast. Frankly, this wasn’t what we came to see. Concept stores are a dime-a-dozen in the U.S. And while impressive, this one didn’t differ all that much from the likes of Performance, Trek, etc.

But it did serve what was clearly one of Duggan’s primary objectives of our visit: to reveal the human faces of an operation that’s oft demonized by some in the cycling industry, who call it a ruthless under-cutter bent on putting all the world’s mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar bike shops out of business. Ironically, it was just such a shop that spawned Chain Reaction Cycles back in 1984. The big difference between that operation and so many others, however, is that it’s adapted to an ever-changing economic landscape.

The large item warehouse is large.

The large item warehouse is large (click to enlarge).

In 1998, the company dove into the mail-order business. “They bought a container of helmets, took out some magazine ads, and made it happen,” explains Duggan, referring to the company’s founding family, which includes parents George and Janice Watson, plus daughters Lola, Sabrina, and Georgina, and son Chris, who today serves as CRC’s managing director. “When they sold all those helmets, they reinvested and brought in more product. And that has continued to be the way to this day, always putting money back in to invest in new stock and improved service.”

The Watson clan has also excelled in spotting trends, and in 2000, they decided to plow company resources into a burgeoning phenomena called the Internet. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. “It literally opened up the world,” says Duggan.

Continue to page 2 for more of our Chain Reaction Cycles headquarters tour »
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About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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