New Industry Leader: Nikolas Obriecht
“All in the family.” It’s a phrase with which many specialty retailers are familiar. Their shops and sales pitches, their brands and businesses, are passed down, from generation to generation. But like all hand-me-downs, these retailers get a little dusty and worn with age. That’s why the latest generation of leadership in the industry is so integral to its future success; they’re still a piece of the generational puzzle, but with new insights and modern perspectives, they’re just different enough to make a difference.
It’s a situation Nikolas Obriecht of Baltimore’s Race Pace Bicycles knows well because he’s lived it. His grandmother owned Baltimore mainstay Calico Cat, a boutique craft store, for 50 years. “Her attention to detail, keen eye for merchandising, business savvy and unwavering standard of customer care informed my father when he opened Race Pace Bicycles in 1978,” says Obriecht. In turn, it was his father’s own innovation of his mother’s retail knowledge that would later influence Obriecht himself. “Specialty retail is very much in my DNA.”
Nikolas and his oldest son Shepard
A large part of Obriecht’s success lies in that very DNA. It’s the old fashioned tenets of retail that have always, and probably always will, made shops like Race Pace integral parts of their community. “At Race Pace, as with many fine retailers in our industry, we never forget the basics of courteous and gracious customer care with as much fun as possible thrown into the mix,” notes Obriecht. “We read and talk a lot about creating ‘the experience,’ and my father really is great at helping customers connect with Race Pace and cycling through stories, through the care he takes fitting a kid for a helmet or the joy he has breaking out a map of the city to show someone the best route across town.”
It’s this “experience” to which Obriecht refers that so many of us owe our success. Translating the experience into modern aspects of our businesses—like social media, Obriecht points out—is the first step to modernizing stale retailers.
But that modernization—or perhaps as Obriecht aptly calls it, evolution—is manifold and presents itself tangibly throughout his stores. “As an industry, we have some catching up to do with other specialty retail in how we present and perceive ourselves,” Obriecht says.
A big piece of that puzzle is simple: awareness. “We invest heavily in our stores and are particular about the look and feel of our stores. It is imperative to stay interesting and to avoid complacency,” Obriecht says. Whether it’s in a new store—Race Pace has been expanding recently into new brick and mortars, a move that many in the industry might perceive as risky—or their first shop, the Race Pace team intentionally reshapes and molds their storefronts to appeal to the latest customer and their needs and wants. “In laying out our stores, we have begun to incorporate some ‘store-in-store’ concepts that we took directly from other specialty retail. We work with our best partner brands and dedicate a good-sized space to the brands, and it presents customers with something very different from what they are used to in bicycle retail. These sections are ‘curated’ by ourselves and the brands working together throughout the year to focus on different product and this helps keep the stores fresh and vibrant.”
We’ve heard it (and said it) before: retailers and brands need to partner to intentionally appeal to their specific markets. But even we have struggled with the “how.” What Obriecht’s doing is ingenuous. By curating special areas of the store to a brand and their best customer, it’s genuinely a partnership that benefits everyone. It’s a modern, personalized experience within a traditional retail model that’s, exactly as he said, an evolution.
Another new layout strategy that sets Race Pace apart is transparency. “We have become huge believers in putting the service centers out in the open and encouraging customer interactions with our techs,” says Obriecht. It offers a unique glance at the inner workings of the shop and comes paired with a hefty dose of legitimacy. “We want for folks to talk to the tech who will be overhauling their fork and for people to see tools and machines being cared for and brought back to life. There’s a tangible and visceral reaction to stuff being maintained and fixed and I want for people to leave our stores thinking ‘Wow, that was pretty cool, not only were they kind and helpful, but did you see all the bikes in stands? That is a professional operation.’” Modern shoppers don’t always want the slick veneer of the last generation’s shopping malls; they want reality and to see the inner workings of these sports and passions.
That curation and intentionality extends into all areas of the store. “Our stores have more variety now than they ever have both in terms of brands and variety of product offered, but we have paired this with a real focus on inventory control and with stocking the store with intention,” Obriecht explains. “In the past, we’d take flyers on this and that or buy those because it was a good deal, but we have shifted our focus to ensuring that customers have all the variety that they want (and we believe need to be offered) and that we know what products we need when and why we have them.” Like we discuss in this month’s No Excuse Zone, specialty retailers need to eliminate that discount mentality and instead stock and shop with intentionality.
Now, back to that expansion. “In the time that I have become deeply involved in the business, we have grown from four to seven stores, which takes an entirely different approach to HR, marketing, inventory management and general operations,” says Obriecht. Where cynics are decrying the evolution of online retail and the death of the brick and mortar, Obriecht—part of that very generation of buyers who made online shopping a thing—is investing in his community. That means reshaping his father’s business model not just to fit a new generation, but within the same tenets. “My father and I are very hands-on, and we are needing to rethink and reassess certain parts of the business to optimize efficiency and really ensure that we are leveraging the potential of having seven really great stores so that we best serve our customers.” Again, it all comes back to awareness and a willingness to evolve.
It’s this kind of open thinking that sets Race Pace apart from similar specialty retailers. “We have to run better businesses and make choices that ensure long term success versus chasing short term gains,” Obreicht says of the current missteps he sees in the industry. “This can be tough, especially with so much turbulence in the market, but it is imperative to know who you are and what you stand for and make decisions based on this. We all veer from this path from time to time, but I see a lot of folks out there (in the bicycle industry and in specialty retail in general) hunkering down and clamming up—getting as lean as possible on inventory and staff, making real estate choices for cheaper rent in iffy locations with the mindset that they are planning for survival instead of planning for success.” Obreicht pauses to consider that idea. “This is one of the biggest issues I see currently in our industry on every level—manufacturer, distributor and retailer.”
And it’s true. Rather than the doomsday myths about the death of retail, Obriecht subscribes to the optimistic—and realistic—ideas of success that are equal parts tradition and innovation. Planning for success rather than survival. It’s that same openness and awareness that makes these perspectives possible. “We are facing our challenges with very open eyes and minds,” he says. “Soaking up knowledge from retailers in our industry and, perhaps more importantly, outside of our industry. What are customers’ experiences and expectations when shopping at other specialty stores? How can we interact and present our business in a fresh, interesting and relevant way?”
Though Obriecht still turns a wrench on occasion, he recognizes that his truest role is in keeping that evolution and those questions in constant progress. “I view my role as one of making the business that my father grew over 40 years into a better-oiled machine through improving processes, communication and ensuring that employees feel just as motivated and dedicated to the company as they have in the past.”
Like all successful specialty retailers across all generations, it’s people that are at the center of Race Pace. Obriecht’s words return again and again to both his customers and his staff and their priority in his business. “People want to have things to believe in and to have places in their lives where they can feel special and a part of something real and tangible,” he says with a smile. “Race Pace has become this for many, many people. We are humbled by this, and I view it as my obligation to ensure that this is the case long into the future.”
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