Trends & Features

Ben Walker on life at the helm of Tri Harder in Dereham, Norfolk

What made you get into the sports trade?
I’ve always been sporty, but used to mostly play football. I ran my first triathlon about 10 years ago and was immediately hooked. Finding the right clothing, nutrition and equipment was, however, always a challenge, so along with my business partner James Walsgrove, I felt there was a better way to do things – and Tri Harder was born.

How did you get started?

In the beginning, purely at events and online. My first wetsuit sale was made in a gym changing room in 2011. We also went into people’s homes and had a trade stand at local triathlon races.

The next big step was taking on our shop unit a year later, but to start with we only opened at evenings and weekends, as James and I continued to work in our day jobs – I had my own business in exercise referral and James was a BT engineer. The bulk of my time is now spent on the business and James is full-time.

Has the increasing popularity of cycling and triathlon had a positive effect?
No doubt about it. We are seeing more and more people from a mix of backgrounds taking up the sports.

Which brands and products work best for you?
Our biggest USP from any other shops in the area is our wetsuits and trisuits. We’ve sold Zone3 products from the start and they have grown every year to become one of our leading brands.

Which part of triathlon brings in the most business?
It’s between swimming and cycling. We’ve found it much harder to develop the running side. Obviously, we get customers who only do one of the sports, but it’s interesting to see how many start to take up another sport over time and even move onto triathlon.

What do you think is going to be the next big thing in triathlon?
From a clothing perspective, it’s all about trisuits with sleeves this year as opposed to sleeveless. All the brands are now doing them and lots of people seem to want one. We’ve also just taken delivery of the very first running power meter, which could be really big over the next few years. Power in cycling is now really popular and it’ll be interesting to see how it works for runners, particularly in triathlon.

Who are your competitors?
Our biggest triathlon competition is online. There’s very little competition locally for tri specific kit, although we have plenty of bike and running shops in the area. The best way for us to compete is through exceptional service and giving the customer something an online store can’t. This can be a Retul bike fit or coaching advice – essentially, specialist help.

It’s important to price competitively, but impossible to be the cheapest. Help and support from the brands and suppliers is also very important.

How does the online part of your business compare to in-store sales?
At the moment, the shop is much bigger than the website in terms of sales, but we are planning on developing the website.

How do you get your name out there and people through the door?
We have to keep working hard and never assume people would have heard of us. It’s incredible the number of times people still walk in and say: “I never knew you were here”.

A strong social media presence is also important to build a local community, as is working with local clubs. But some of our most successful marketing comes from holding special events, such as open water swim days or coaching talks.

What do you find ensures customers keep coming back?
Customer service every time. Look after the customer and help them get the right kit for their racing and training and they will keep coming back. Sell them what you want at the start and you run the risk of never seeing them again.

What do you like most about your business?
I love the sport, the kit and the people. Triathlon, in particular, brings such a massive spectrum of people through the door, each with their own targets, and it’s great to see them develop.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Learning about the retail trade, particularly making better choices in relation to stock. It’s so important and you will never get it 100 per cent right. I think trying to choose female products is also a big challenge for us two boys.

What’s going to be your next challenge?

Taking Tri Harder to the next level. It would be great to have a dedicated fitness testing space, an endless pool for demos and a small cafe for cyclists and customers. But even without this, as long as we can grow, improve and become better known nationally among triathletes, swimmers, cyclists and runners, I’ll be happy.

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