Halfords gets a bad press. Like the US gadget store Best Buy, it doesn’t lack annoyed critics on the internet eager to complain about the ineptitude of its employees. On cycling forums it is often cruelly dismissed as Hellfrauds. To those uninitiated or non-British, Halfords is an automotive retailer (and workshop) that is also the UK’s largest bicycle retailer.
Last year I bought one of Halford’s flagship bikes — the Boardman Hybrid Pro (the only place to purchase this excellent range). It’s a smart aluminium framed flatbar road bike with a full carbon fork, Avid Elixir 5 hydraulic brakes, a BB30 FSA Energy chainset and a SRAM Rival groupset (with the lovely semi-carbon flatbar DoubleTap shifters). It’s lovely. I added a set of Easton EC90 carbon bar-ends for comfort and I haven’t looked back.
Yep. The Richey wheelset isn’t the lightest, but I think along with cockroaches, they’re one of the few things that would survive a nuclear holocaust.
When I bought the bike (through my work’s tax-free Bike-to-Work scheme), I was dubious of Halfords’ reputation as a nasty faceless corporation with muppets manning the counters.
My first experience of Halfords’ customer service peeps was in January of this year when I placed my order at the Boardman-approved Lincoln store. I was delighted to find that the two guys assisting me were both knowledgable and helpful. They went through the pros and cons of each model, and explained what accessories I would need. I didn’t let them know at the time I was a cycle nerd (along with being many other kinds of nerd, as my wife would attest) who had already decided on his purchase. And I didn’t need to. It was a splendid experience, that was fortified later, when I popped in for some advice on some accessories, that sadly they didn’t have in stock (the assistant — a different but equally informed young chap, provided me with the product codes needed. We subsequently had an involved conversation about Orange mountain bikes — one of which I own and he was building).
My second visit to a Halfords store was in the middle of the summer when my hydraulic Avid brakes had gained a rather unfortunate air bubble. I checked YouTube and other sources and found that Avid Elixir brakes are a pure-breed bastard to bleed and require significant TLC. I decided to try out my warranty and the fact that I hadn’t yet used my promised 6-week service.
This time I visited my local Newark (non-Boardman) store. I was apprehensive. Newark’s BikeHut (Halfords’ name for its bicycle arm) is small — tucked away to the back of a modest floorspace. I had visited a few weeks before to have a look and view its stock. On this first visit I was turned off by one of its employees — a middle aged hippy-type guy who was far too full of his own bicycling knowledge and prowess. He was waxing profusely about his own skill and subtly running down his eye-rolling colleague. I left thinking he was an epic douchebag.
Upon returning with my hobbled air bubbled Boardman in tow I was relieved that the long-haired douchebag was nowhere to be seen and I approached the counter. Within seconds of explaining my issue to a different but likeable older gentleman, the very same shower-avoiding baby-boomer had emerged from the workshop dungeon and was taking over my query — no doubt desperate to have a go at something other than the usual fairy bikes and broken sub-£300 Carrera’s that must dominate his day. Now I must take much of what I have written above back. He proved to be the epitome of customer service and, when he learned I was quite the enthusiastic cyclist, proved understanding — never condescending — and was visually pleased to sort out my issue. I left perplexed, a little disappointed at myself, and hopeful.
The next day I received a voicemail explaining that while the Avids had proved quite the bitch (as YouTube had promised), my hirsute friend had sorted my issue and had calibrated my gears for good measure. Even better, when I collected my beloved bicycle en route home that night, he had charged the work to my 6-week service and I had nothing to pay. Result! +2 Halfords!
Today was my third visit to Halfords. I have decided to fully fulfil my dream of turning my Hybrid Pro into a proper commuter ride, so fulfilling the governments desire that I leave my car at home. I needed a rack, fenders, better commuter lights and panniers.
I pulled up at the Mansfield store somewhat worried. The branch had large and numerous automotive doors down one side and the actual showroom looked squeezed off to one-side. But upon opening the doors I was buoyed by the sight of a mezzanine floor of cycle goodness with Boardman bikes clearly visible! This was a “Boardman approved Halfords!”
Shame on me?
I entered hopeful that all my needs would be satisfied.
Upon perusing the store I found a Topeak rack marked “DX” that I assumed would be disc compatible (the Halfords website recommended a similar rack for the disc equipped Boardman). I approached the counter confident that what I held in my hand would service my needs. I was faced with the sort of gormless fuckwit only a Farrelly Brothers movie would dare present as a believable representation of an operational human being. He looked blankly at me as if I had asked him to name each and every star in the known and unknown galaxies. He was the sort of person who would find the request, “a Big Mac and fries”, utterly perplexing.
As seconds ticked by, it felt like seasons and even years had passed, and then suddenly without words, he turned and looked helplessly at his colleague, who was busy looking confused at a sub-£300 Carrera mounted on a work-stand behind the counter. The other assistant rotated slowly as if using some archaic machinery built by tiny medieval rodents before explaining that it wouldn’t fit (I wasn’t convinced), but that he would he would find one that did. Clearly this guy was the one who had been on the course to use the apparently NASA-level Halfords computer that would answer my deeply complex universe bending question. Again the seasons passed. Embarrassed I began wandering the store looking at other wares, occasionally smiling when the second attendant said time and again that it, “would just be a minute”.
Eventually the assistant, who apparently was the only one blessed with the power of speech, called me over and informed me of a rack that would sate my requirements. I quickly picked up the rack, some mudguards (fenders for any American readers), and some cheapish nylon panniers (it was 3 accessories for the price of 2 after all) and l left relieved, and somewhat unnerved that any self-respecting “bicycle store” could dredge the depths of the British workforce so deep, as to find two more incompetent people to work in it.
So Halfords or Hellfrauds? My experiences are towards the former, but heavens help you if you step into the Mansfield store any time soon.