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Plain Dealer: Fourth Store One Too Many

This article appeared as part of The Cleveland Plain Dealer's recurring feature of their Business section called "My Biggest Mistake" on October 2, 2006. The online version of the article can be found here.

Fouth store one too many

Business lost the family feeling when it opened larger location

October 2, 2006

by Scott Cowan, as told to Plain Dealer report Marcia Pledger

Is bigger always better? For us, it was not.

Before we opened Century Cycles nearly 15 years ago in a small shop in Medina, we spent six months working on a business plan trying to determine the viability of making it for five years. Five years after we opened, our sales were about $15,000 above my original projections.

Opportunities and good timing were the reasons Lois Moss and I opened stores in Rocky River and Peninsula. By the time we opened our fourth store, in Solon six years ago, we started thinking that expanding would be phenomenal. The store was 7,000 square feet, more than twice the size of our other stores. We thought it would be so hugely successful that our next step would be other markets.

We were a family business - until we opened that fourth store, it seemed. Losing that family business feeling was just one of the problems with having multiple locations.

My biggest mistake was growing too big for what we really wanted to be.

When we opened the first store, I had lost a job in sales and was at a crossroads. I wanted to find something that I was passionate about. I explored doing something with bikes because I was a serious biker and the industry appealed to me for so many reasons.

Just about everybody has had a bike at some point, and people want those same experiences for their children. I believed in the sport from an economical and physical standpoint, and because it's an activity that you can do your entire life. My 73-year-old ex-father-in-law is biking with a group across the country right now.

But when we opened our fourth location, everything got complicated. With three stores, our model worked well. With four stores, our model was being patched together, from the computer system to deliveries. All of our bikes were shipped to the largest location because we didn't have a warehouse. It became difficult to get bikes to other locations in a timely manner.

There are a million reasons why a store doesn't do well. In our case, the strip shopping center we moved into in Solon soon lost several retailers, including the anchor grocery store, a big Hallmark store and a 10,000-square-foot clothing store.

We lost seasoned employees who bought out our competition. And even though people had been telling us for years that we should open on the East Side and the area's demographics were right for our business, traffic flow was never up to par.

For a bicycle store, 7,000 square feet was big. It felt like a big-box retail store. It didn't have that warm, fuzzy feeling. Despite its size, it was never our best-performing store in the five years we had it before closing it last year. The company started feeling corporate, and I was having trouble getting to all four stores each week.

Things were not going as planned. But it took a lot of soul searching before we decided to close the store. It's a difficult decision.

When you decide to close a location, you have to think about how a company will be perceived by employees, customers and onlookers. We're a pretty big dealer in the bike industry locally and nationally. We're one of the top 10 Raleigh dealers in the country and we wanted to make sure the industry knew it was still a viable business. We did that by taking 17 employees to our national convention last year.

On the local level, we worried about our employees. My former business partner, Lois Moss, and I had decided to end our marriage, so employees were already wondering what that meant for the business.

Together we went to all of the stores to tell employees that we had made a mistake and we had decided to close the Solon store. We also wanted them to know that they had a future in our company. Fortunately for us, everybody remained with the company.

Then we mailed coupons and letters to customers urging them to shop at our other locations. We were able to track the results. Sales at our Peninsula location, the closest store to the one that we closed, are up 25 percent for the year.

Stress levels are down. We're making better buying decisions. And I'm back to visiting all three stores every week. It's fun again.

We're a much stronger company now and we're committed to the future of biking in Cleveland.

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