A Tale of Two Halfords

When I was in the Netherlands recently, I saw lots of Halfords shops. UK readers will be familiar with this brand, as it’s the name of a national chain of everything-for-the-car shops. They also sell a lot of bikes which, in my experience, are usually at the back of the store. (According to their corporate site, they sell one million bikes a year – are these mainly childrens’ bikes, or do they get left in the garage? Where are these millions of cyclists in the UK?)

The branches of Halfords I visited in the Netherlands were a very different affair. The stores were generally smaller than the warehouse-sized UK shops, and the bike-to-car products ratio was reversed — it was mainly a bike shop which also sold car bits. They were very helpful places, with free bike tyre pumps by the door and they even lent me a spanner to tighten the seat on my hire bike, which had become slightly loose. Maybe they have more car-centric stores out-of-town, but the ones I saw were all in the centre of town.

(Halfords in the UK isn’t part of the same company as Halfords in the Netherlands and Belgium, as far as I can tell. I imagine that they were once joined, but it seems they were split some time ago, and now operate independently of each other.)

Inspired by this post and this post I took a look at the bike sections of the two Halfords’ websites. As you might expect, the two sites vary enormously.

The UK Halfords bike page is all dropped handlebars and helmets…

Halfords UK website main cycling page

If you can find one photo of someone not wearing a helmet even vaguely near a bike then you’re doing well! (I did find one, as it happens.)

…whereas the bikes page on  the Dutch Halfords site is mainly about utility, with a large range of practical bike types (although it does have one section called “ATB” – I assume this means All-Terrain Bikes, or something). Note how all the bikes shown, except the ATB one, have at least a rear rack, mudguards and lights.

Halfords NL website main cycling page

Categories: Grannybikes, Child bikes, Electric bikes, Recreational bikes, Mother bikes (with child seats), Folding bikes, City bikes, and ATB.

The most depressing bit about the UK Halfords site, however, has to be their cycle selector tool – you know the kind of thing, where the website asks you questions about what you’re looking for and then makes recommendations which may or may not be of use.

The first question asks whether you are male or female. Not being into bikes, I wouldn’t have thought this made much difference to the type of bike you could ride – after all, both men and women generally have legs, arms and a head, right? Anyway, it’s question 2 which stumped me:

Halfords UK cycle choosing advice page

“What will you be cycling for? Leisure/Fitness, Extreme Fun, Jump & Tricks, or Electric Bike?” But what if I want to pop to the shops?

Ignoring that the fourth option isn’t an answer to the question posed, what do I choose? I don’t want an electric bike, nor do I want to do jumps and/or tricks, I get enough extreme fun crossing the roads here in London, and I don’t want to get fit. I just want to buy a practical bike and use it to get about – go to the shops, that sort of thing. Is that such an unusual desire?

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and choose the nearest match: Leisure/Fitness. Then you can choose from different terrain types – I chose Urban (as opposed to Rural, or Rocky Terrain), then I chose Non-Portable (i.e. not a folding bike), then Upright (of course!) and the site gives me a choice of “hybrid” bikes, none of which have any storage racks at all, or even mudguards! Completely impractical bikes designed for anything except utility.

Halfords UK bikes results page, with lots of impractical bikes

Wot no mudguards or lights?

To be fair, Halfords UK does have a range of what they call “classic” bikes, which resemble the standard Dutch-style bike, although they’re mostly labelled as “ladies’ bikes” and are treated like some kind of deviant purchase and kept under the counter. I could only find a link for them on the huge menu which appears when you hover over “bikes” at the top of the page (where you’ll also find encouraging phrases such as body armour, hi vis clothing, and hydration packs) – they don’t seem to be mentioned or recommended anywhere else on the site.

I’m not having a go at Halfords UK here – surely they’re just providing what the public wants? But it suggests that utility cycling doesn’t really exist here, and if it does then it’s dwarfed by sports cycling. Perhaps this is why, until recently, cycle campaigning in the UK has been dominated by the Right-to-Ride extremists blind to the needs of others – cycling is seen as a sport first, as an ideology second, and as transport third. (Sometimes the first two are swapped around.)

I don’t know really what point I’m trying to make here, except that looking at bikes on Halfords UK site got me down. Surely they hold a mirror up to our society? Or do they help shape it?

To finish off, I’ll leave you with the image that Halfords UK deem suitable for the top of their “Cycle2Work” page.

Photo of lycra-clad helmetted cyclist on a mountain bike drinking from a cycling water holder. He's riding to work, apparently.


Update: I meant to link to this in the article, but this is the sort of bike they should be selling for practical cycling. I’m sure they would sell them, if we had the infrastructure to ride them on.


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6 responses to “A Tale of Two Halfords

  1. Good piece. Halfords NL sell a range of bikes, including cheaper, poorer quality ones, very often the less expensive version of the oma fiets (grandmother bike). When we tried to buy a bike there a few years ago (my wife’s Raleigh had collapsed on holiday) they tried to direct us to one of these. Like the UK Halfords, they were very keen to sell – and I didn’t think the advice we were being given was the best. We eventually bought a Giant (pron Jee-aunt) from an independent store.

    Incidentally, most Dutch bike shops are in the suburbs rather than the town centres, which makes it easier for people to take their bikes for servicing. /repairs. Even a city the size of Delft only has Halfords and a superb independent store next to the van Gogh museum.

    The cycling stalls on the markets are good, too, selling a range of items we just don’t see over here. I picked up a cheap non-weatherproof briefcase for about €5 that lasted me a couple of summers.

    • Even though they’re different companies, the feel of the Dutch Halfords shops was strangely similar to the UK ones. Maybe it’s all that rubber?

      Funnily enough, it was the Halfords in Delft that loaned me the spanner to tighten the seat! I didn’t tighten it enough though, and a guy at BVD Tweewielers in Amsterdam was kind enough to tighten it for me a few days later. He didn’t even charge me, which is why I’m plugging the shop here.

  2. PaulM

    To be fair to Halfords UK (part of Boots), it is not the only bike chainstore to load the dice this way. Take a look at the websites for Evans, Chan Reaction, Cycle Surgery, and you will find essentially the same features. You really have to dig around to find transport utility bikes of any kind, although Evans probably has a larger range, notably carrying more Pashley models.

    They all, on their websites or in their printed catalogues, show almost all bikes including the hybrids without panniers, racks, lights or mudguards. When I asked Evans about that, their response was that you can always order all of these things as accessories. OK, so perhaps you can, but apart from the fact that they aren’t displayed, and so create a particular impression of the bikes which might be regarded as misleading, they are also in effect misleadingly priced – all those extras add quite a chunk to the price, to the point that a Pashley which looked quite a lot dearer before is beginning to look competitive after – and that’s before you consider quality comparisons.

    You might think that chainstores sell bikes cheaper than independents. Not so. I priced the Pashley Penny my daughter asked for in Evans and at my local independent in Liphook, Hants, and both quoted exactly the same price – the manufacturer’s RRP of £549. It is possible that I might have got 10% or so off at Evans as a member of the LCC discount scheme, but you have to read the small print about what is included, and I couldn’t be bothered, and I would prefer to give the sales margin to Liphook because I want them to be there when I need them in future.

    Do Halfords etc push all these sporty or MTB style bikes because that is what customers want? Frankly I doubt they really know what customers want, they sell what they THINK customers wnt, or what they can easily source from mass producers in the far east, because the concept of “pile em high and sell em cheap” (well, cheapish) is more profitable.

  3. Rob Inbucks

    Halfords will follow trends and fashion, at bargain basement prices. Mountain bikes and BMX have glamour and image so they have pushed them recently. Over the past few seasons, road cycling has become more fashionable so Halfords has its Carrera range and the Boardmans (good bikes but not really suitable for most beginners and casual cyclists).

    I met a middle aged, overweight chap on a full suspension mountain bike. He bought it from Halfords ‘because the suspension would make it more comfortable’. The frame was a size too small and his saddle was too low, which might damage his knees.

    He bought his bike for spurious reasons and will struggle to enjoy his cycling because he is using the wrong bike. He thinks he got himself a bargain, but he was an easy sale because he didn’t know how to choose a bike.

  4. Pingback: Is the CTC helping or hindering bike use in the UK? | The Alternative Department for Transport

  5. The bicycle industry is sport based, short termist and run by cyclists. Most cycle businesses rely on a busy workshop and will only sell a bicycle that needs hi margin accessories to make it semi practical. Hence the bicycle for transport has been denigrated to such an extent that the percieved value is so low now that folk by a bike to get to the gym or shops now but only want to pay £130 if your lucky…and you can get a MTB for that amount…but it will go wrong and it won’t be comfortable, you will have nowhere to put shopping, and you will get wet from the road when you ride.
    Some people don’t want to spend big money because “they will never ride it”.

    If you want people to ride more, you have to sell them the right bike.
    The UK’s business model appears to be, sell a cheap bike and make 3x the money keeping it working, the europeans realise that if you spend 3x the money on a bike, that might be all you spend for a year or two.

    There is money to be made in selling bicycles like jumpers, cheap, fashionable and only wearable for a few washes..
    If you want to get the masses riding bikes, you have to sell them something that works for what they want it for..and to do that you have to change the perceptions of value…i’m not sure the industry wants that.. pile em hi, sell em cheap is the mantra…not all halfords brands are iffy,..but they are all high maintenance bikes…all have derailers..v brakes…all need accessories to work properly in the UK. all will need lights, fenders, a rack to be used daily. thanks the different from Holland, we are fed dross…and lap it up…
    To see bikes used more, we need to see the right bikes being ridden, but how will that happen if people cannot see/ride them to apprieciate them..?

    All part of the the holy trilogy , safe routes, right bike, secure destinations.

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