From bricks and mortar to online shop: How to branch out

From bricks and mortar to online shop: How to branch out

There are lots of good reasons to branch out into selling online when you have an established shop – from growing your customer base to building brand loyalty. But running a successful store is no guarantee that online sales will follow. So how can you get the move from bricks and mortar to virtual store right? Follow these steps from retailers who’ve already been there and bought the t-shirt. (They ordered it online…)

1. Do your research

The first rule of starting any enterprise is size-up your market – and one obvious advantage of having a physical shop is that you’ve got customers you can canvas for opinion. Ask if they’d buy online from you if they had the option. The answers should yield some valuable – and possibly surprising – market data.

Tracey McAllister runs Home Made Beautiful (homemadebeautifulni.com) and is launching an online shop too. “We get lots of tourists and seasonal visitors (as opposed to locals) coming to the shop who often express a desire to buy more than their luggage restrictions allow,” she says. “We offer to ship their purchase home but quite often they ask for details of items so they can find them online later – if we can direct them to our own online store then we aren’t losing out on these sales, and we’re creating potential cross selling / up-selling opportunities too.”

2. Have a separate strategy for your online and offline sales

It’s a mistake to view an online store as a bolt-on to your physical shop. “There will be many crossovers between your online and offline sales but you need to think of each independently so that you can cater to both markets and their customers accordingly,” says Lisa Forde, who for the past 14 years has run The Card Gallery (thecardgallery.co.uk) and has two online stores (treeofhearts.co.uk).

3. Make yourself easy to find

It’s vital to determine why you’re different from other online shops, and spell out what you offer that larger online retailers don’t. Are your products sustainable / locally-made / eco-friendly / unique / handmade / of distinctive quality? Familiarise yourself with SEO best practice (or hire an expert) to ensure people searching for those products can find you easily. Lisa Forde adds: “You may also want to advertise online, build up your rankings so customers can find you on Google, and use social media to build awareness.”(there are a lot of free seminars on these topics at Spring Fair, Autumn Fair and Pure London trade shows, check out the Events page for more info)

4. Think about the whole package – literally

Don’t make the mistake of treating packaging as an afterthought, and never cut costs here. “Packaging adds cost to your product but it needs to be adequate to ensure your customer’s orders always arrive in tip-top condition,” says Lisa. “The company who delivers your products will form part of the service you offer too, so be sure they won’t disappoint your customers.”

“Part of the consumer experience is the opening of the parcel,” adds Clare Bennett Smith, co-founder of curry-with-love.co.uk. “It’s worth putting your logo on the parcel too – a bit of extra marketing can’t hurt! And I always put a handwritten note in with our orders, thanking the customer by name. Little things like that help build brand loyalty.”

5. Signed, sealed… delivered?

“Think about the type of products you sell and the best delivery methods for them – are your goods perishable, breakable, easily damaged, very large or very small?” says Lisa. “There are lots of postage and courier options plus fast and slower delivery options so think about the best ones to suit your products – but be mindful that customers want their orders quickly, whichever market you are in.”

“Lots of companies, including Royal Mail, offer a pick-up service,” adds Bennett Smith. “Also think about the cost of the item being posted. If it’s of high value or bespoke, it’s advisable to use a courier who will track the item, giving both seller and customer peace of mind.”

6. Consider free delivery

If you have a relatively low-cost product, it could be worthwhile offering free P&P within the UK. “If someone’s paying £3.75 for a curry kit, we felt they wouldn’t want to pay an extra £3.30 to cover postage,” explains Bennett Smith.

“Our kits are light and flat so we can post up to three kits out at a time as a large letter. Anything over that goes as a small parcel and costs us £3.12. We’ve always used Royal Mail and in the main, they provide a good service.”

Nonetheless, postage is one of the company’s biggest overheads so Bennet Smith recommends investing in a franking machine – she projects theirs will save the business around £1500 per annum.

7. Images

You wouldn’t pile products up in boxes and expect customers to imagine how they look and feel in-store, so don’t do the equivalent online – your imagery is what your customers will base buying decisions on.

“Original imagery of our products helps differentiate us from many of the other online stores in our niche who simply use stock images or photos from suppliers,” says Sam Williamson (ahume.co.uk). “We also fill our About pages and our blog with as much personality, original imagery and expertise as possible, which means our website reflects the aesthetic of our shops.”

8. Go live!

Finally, go live on your transactional website only when everything else is truly complete. It only takes a few ‘teething problems’ – and the associated negative reviews – to create problems, so don’t rush this final stage.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking the hard work is over once your site goes live, adds Fiona Kennedy redrubyrouge.com. “Think ahead to how you plan to keep on top of stock,” she says. “Bringing customers to your site to shop is one hurdle but if they click through to buy items that are in fact unavailable, your job is much more difficult.”

In a nutshell…

However long you think you’ll need to spend in preparation before you launch your online shop, double it. It’s better to end up ready earlier than anticipated than the other way round. “The designer who created my site could have done it in two weeks theoretically but when you factor in how much more work there is involved than you think, it’s better to allow more like 6-12 months,” says Tracey.

There’s no such thing as a ball-park figure for what it will cost to take your business online because the variables are endless but when working out your budget remember that what you outsource to an expert will save you time – and you can’t put a price on that.

A beautiful website that works seamlessly is critical to your success – it’s a false economy to scrimp on this. “We all know retailers whose shops are beautiful but whose sites let them down,” says Tracey. “Ultimately, when people land on my page I want them to feel the same ‘wow factor’ they have when they set foot through the door,” she says. “Otherwise we’re selling ourselves short.”

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