Chain Reaction Cycles proudly proclaim that they're "the world's largest online bike store" but it's not until you arrive at their headquarters in Doagh, a quiet village just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland, that the full scale of the operation hits you.
The first thing you see is a massive industrial unit, entered via a gleaming showroom where the latest bikes, components and clothing are on display (and available to buy). Can't see what you want? Log on to www.chainreactioncycles.com using the in-store computer terminal and staff will fetch you whatever you want from the huge warehouse out back.
The rural village of Doagh is an incongruous location for Chain Reaction's massive warehouse
Combined with another unit across the road, which is where new products arrive and the website team and photo studio are based, the Doagh site covers some 150,000sq ft. On top of that, CRC have another 65,000sq ft unit two miles down the road where all the new bikes are stored. Not bad for a family owned business that began life as a tiny shop in nearby Ballynure 25 years ago!
Products arrive at the goods-in unit over the road from the showroom and are then stored in Chain Reaction's main 100,000sq ft warehouse. This place is vast, with dozens of aisles and stock stacked several storeys high. It takes a small army to fill the tens of thousands of orders being received daily – in total, CRC have around 420 staff.
The CRC warehouse is vast – and this is just parts and clothing. Bikes are kept in a separate storage facility
Customer orders are relayed to pickers wearing radio headsets and the goods are then put into plastic crates and sent to the packing room. Here they're sorted by size – large objects like rims or tyres are packed by hand, while the other 75 percent of products are put into one of two queues to be boxed.
Ever wondered why even small items ordered from Chain Reaction tend to arrive in a cardboard box? CRC say their automated system is so efficient that it's quicker to pack items in a cardboard box than an alternative like a jiffy bag, it doesn't cost any more, is more environmentally friendly, the contents are better protected and the uniform shape of the boxes makes them easier to fit in the back of vans.
This machine calculates the size of each order and then folds the cardboard box to fit
The company only have two sizes of cardboard box. Orders are put into one or the other, depending on size, and the lid is left open. The box then enters an amazing machine which works out the size of the order and custom scores and folds the box to fit. A postage label is then affixed and the package is ready to be dispatched.
During our whistlestop tour of Chain Reaction, which coincided with the relaunch of the Vitus bike brand, we were also shown the sales and customer service centre, where staff were answering calls in nine languages – yes, you can actually call CRC and speak to a human being. We were taken around the workshop, where wheels are built and parts are serviced, and also had a quick visit to the design room, where early drawings of the 2012 Vitus range were on display – look out for more on these bikes soon on BikeRadar. See our image gallery for loads more pictures.
Sean Kelly, who's helping to relaunch the Vitus brand, checks out some of the international parcels