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How to be an Indie: Building your website

Whether a basic page or fully transactional site, today’s indies must have an online presence

When starting a new business, there are so many issues to consider that simultaneously launching a website could feel like an unwanted extra complication.

Search engine optimisation, analytics, videos and image uploads - there is so much to take on board. Independent retailers also need to decide whether they want to trade online or if having a simple web presence to drive people in store is enough.

While it might prove challenging to go live online from the start, it does mean one less job to tackle in the future, argues British Independent Retail Association deputy chief executive and communications director Michael Weedon.

“It’s important to have a presence online, even if it’s just a basic page giving details of whereabouts and opening hours,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a standalone page – a Facebook presence may be just as useful.

“The big effort comes with building a fully transactional website, and that means building the infrastructure within the business to handle basic requirements for online orders such as packaging, as well as the site itself.”

David Selby, head of ecommerce at womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz, believes the website acts as a vital shop window, especially when customers Google a store and expect to find some presence online.

“However, having a transactional website is a lot more than just having a working website,” he says. “To succeed, payment systems, transit packaging, a trackable delivery system, top-quality images and a seamless returns process need to be in place. The brand can be harmed quickly if these are not working correctly.”

The Viz-a-Viz homepage.

The Viz-a-Viz homepage

Joe Read, SEO manager at website and digital marketing specialist Creare, which has designed websites for retail clients such as Maylord Shopping Centre in Hereford, advises independents to begin by verifying their location on Google Maps, a free-of-charge service that means they appear as a ‘pinned’ location.

“All you need to do is create a Google+ profile and your business will have SEO visibility,” says Read.

“SEO is becoming very user-centric, so focus on fewer keywords and consider how a user would navigate the site. It is better to have separate product pages rather than lots of categories on the same page,” he advises.

It takes Creare four to six weeks to create a small site (between 10 and 12 pages), whereas a bigger site could take closer to three months. A basic site could start out at £1,900, rising to between £4,000 and £8,000 for more advanced ecommerce platforms.

Weedon believes the biggest issue for independents is finding the time to upload product images and descriptions. He suggests an edited highlights selection is the best start, as well as offering online exclusives.

Selby recommends only selling garments online that can be fulfilled quickly from existing stock and taking a careful approach to web exclusives. “It’s important that all the channels are seen as complementary rather than competitive. Adding a channel helps both channels thrive and short online promotions work well.”

Offering a selection of styles online is a good way to lure customers in store, says Tiffany Ross, buying manager of premium men’s and women’s wear retailer Cavells in Oakham, Rutland.

“The stock on the website is a good representation of what’s in store,” she says. “The website helps give our brand exposure and is a way for loyal customers to buy from us even when they are travelling or have moved away.”

Having a fully transactional website is, however, no guarantee of success. “At a recent conference, one speaker explained how he had a mature site, with full transactional abilities and loads of stock – yet after four years it still represented less than 1% of turnover,” reports Weedon. “Several retailers have since confirmed this is true.”

This experience was shared by premium men’s and women’s retailer Robinsons of Bawtry in South Yorkshire. While the store has always had a web presence, it decided to launch a transactional website in 2011, only to stop trading online a year later. “Everything we heard said transactional was the thing to do, so we went with a web developer in Leeds who had worked with big fashion brands,” says director James Jones.

The homepage of the non-transactional Robinson's of Bawtry homepage.

The homepage of the non-transactional Robinson’s of Bawtry website

“It cost £50,000 for the site build and they managed SEO, social media and Google AdWords [an advertising service based on keywords that displays ad copy to web users or links to web pages].

“After a year, we realised that trading online had shifted the whole dynamic of our offering away from added-value service to discounts and ‘AdWords campaigns’, distracting us from our in-store sales. So we decided to bring everything in-house, redesign the website ourselves and turn the ecommerce off. Whereas in store we have the opportunity to add value, online people are just chasing the lowest price.”

Facebook is now Robinsons biggest driver of new sales, attracting a following of more than 13,500, 95% of which are within 50km of the store.

Jones constantly updates the website with fresh photography and has channelled his newspaper advertising budget into video production by using a professional videographer.

Elizabeth Darby, owner of the eponymous mainstream womenswear boutique in Fakenham, Norfolk, agrees Facebook is a good alternative to a transactional website: “I use my website for advertising purposes, but when it comes to online sales I don’t like the idea of sending out items without knowing if they could be damaged. There’s no way of proving the garment left in a perfect condition.”

Whether you opt for a transactional website or treat your web page like a shop window to drive traffic into store, getting the online experience spot on by adopting the right strategy for you is crucial. Get it wrong and the reputation of the store could be put at risk.

Read the previous parts of this series at


Duncan McKenzie, co-owner of premium menswear independent Aphrodite in Sunderland

Duncan MacKenzie

Duncan McKenzie

“We launched our transactional site in 2007, which cost us £5,000. It was designed by web agency Boxes Red in Middlesbrough. We’re now on our third version, which went live in October 2014 and cost around £50,000.

The Aphrodite homepage

The Aphrodite homepage

The investment is much more now we are with ecommerce platform provider Magento, mainly because of how big the website is growing. From our year to the end of March 2015, online sales accounted for roughly 45% of turnover. We expect it to be 60% in the next year.

Websites need updating every four years. Our investment in the fourth version, set to launch in 2016, is in excess of six figures.

The website and store should have a consistent identity. Great images are important, for example in the slider or carousel on the home page, which is the first thing a shopper sees.

We do our own photography, which works well on Instagram. We’re also thinking of adding more video blogs.

Our 10-strong online team manages the website and social media. While Instagram is the strongest platform, we use Twitter and Facebook to link back to the website, which is part of our SEO strategy.”

Kate Walton, owner of women’s young fashion boutique Havetolove in Newcastle

Kate Walton

Kate Walton

The Have to Love homepage

The Havetolove homepage

“Our website launched in 2010 and was fully transactional from the start, although we did update it in 2012 to make it easier to use.

I would describe it as trend-driven and easy to navigate. We launched our mobile site in April, which fits the modern customer’s fast-paced lifestyle.

The initial cost of the website was £5,000. We wanted to invest in the site because online is an important part of our business.

We designed the website ourselves and worked with ecommerce service provider Visualsoft to build it.

Our dedicated team of three manages the site in-house, while Visualsoft looks after any technical issues. The website currently accounts for 65% of sales.

It is a shop window so is constantly changing with new arrivals and ideas. The site is also an online lookbook, showing customers how clothes fit and look off the hanger. Great photography is essential, especially when it comes to detail and fabric quality.

We post celebrity style images and pictures of what customers are wearing to inspire others to buy. We also use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to keep our customers updated.”

Gerard Levy, owner of two-store premium women’s footwear boutique Spice London in Islington and Primrose Hill

Gerard Levy

Gerard Levy

“We’ve had a website for 15 years, although I certainly wouldn’t say our first site could be called a proper website. It was just a web page telling customers about the business, so pretty basic. We went fully transactional two years ago.

The Spice London homepage

The Spice London homepage

Now the website is a vital component of the business. I think nearly everyone uses the internet and, if you don’t have a website, you really are living in the past.

We’ve never employed anyone to design the website; I do everything myself, including managing the site.

The hosting site we use, Moonfruit, is very good and only costs £5 a month.

Our site is designed to match the ambience of our shops. It is clean, minimal and easy to navigate.

Although our site is transactional, we use it more to drive people in store, as shoes are difficult to sell online.

Less than 10% of our sales come from online, so this is something we are of course looking to improve.

As much as we try our best to make the site as good as possible with crisp imagery and relevant information, the reality is we are a retailer, not an etailer.”

Emma Woodward, owner of women’s young fashion retailer Aspire Style, which has stores in Solihull, Earlsdon, Oxford, Stratford and Warwick

Emma Woodward

Emma Woodward

“We launched our first web page in 2005, but went fully transactional six years ago. I felt we needed an ecommerce site as with five stores in tourist areas like Oxford it is a brilliant way to reach customers if they’re not local.

The Aspire Style homepage

The Aspire Style homepage

Approximately 50% of our web sales come from the US. We wanted to build the site in-house as we wanted something unique. We were lucky as a member of our team was trained in coding and, although using a template would have been quicker, we created it from scratch.

The only cost is the hosting fee of £30 a month and paying Sage Pay £25 a month for the payment system.

About 80% of our stock is available online, although we tend to offer extended Sales to clear end-of-line garments or random sizes we wouldn’t sell on the shop floor. It also gives customers a reason to go online without stealing store sales.

Our site represents 12% of total sales. It is really important to replicate the brand online and strong imagery is key. This is managed by our three-strong online team. We stage our own photo shoots to get the best pictures possible.

It is really important to replicate the brand online and strong product imagery is key. This is managed by our three-strong online team.

We stage our own photoshoots to get the best pictures possible. Having strong product pages that are kept up to date is really important.”

Readers' comments (4)

  • Although web sites are a now must for any retailer, anyone paying £50K to set one up is being caught with their pants down.

    Essentially, web sites can be done by any with a bit of savvy and common sense and all it will cost you is your time and a small monthly fee. If you haven't got anyone within your organisation who can do it, then questions need to be asked...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Nigel Brown

    Its great to see independent retailers invest in the future of their businesses by fully embracing eCommerce, especially when for example 50% of Aspire Style sales comes from the US. This is a great success story.

    Unfortunately, I don't understand the rational of the anonymous comment above & I think it really undervalues the time, effort and expertise provided by Commerce companies and those retailers who want to make their on-line presence a success.

    Yes you can go on line for next to nothing, but then you really do get what you pay for.

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  • James Jones

    The £50k included the e-commerce website build with various custom functions, integration into our in store ePos system, social media, SEO & AdWords Management as well as some extra graphic design and ancillary work/equipment over the course of the year.

    We did look at other options that were much cheaper but in the end we were taken in by the track record of the company and their existing clients, what we over looked was their existing clients position in the market compared to our own, they operated fully managed services for some major well established labels whereas we were trying to establish ourselves in the market.

    The website generated revenues of over £100,000 in those 12 months but at very slim margin once cost of sales & stock were accounted for, in store sales for the same period were down by over £200,000. Based on their performance over that first 12 months we had very little confidence in the company providing the website and related services so we pulled the plug on them to focus on re-building our in store business.

    Since doing this our in-store sales have recovered and we are now thriving off a strong in store businesses that has grown year on year to be at record levels for our store.

    There are many great website developers out there, it can be tricky to find them and they're usually busy for a number of months ahead but I would always recommend waiting for the right one and really looking at how they've performed for people in a similar position to yourself.

    An expensive lesson but one that hopefully others can also learn from.

    A great article by Charlotte - thanks so much for sharing our story.

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  • darren hoggett

    We launched our transactional site just over 18 months ago, which cost was negligible. We didn't see any purpose in getting somebody in and paying them to do what we could already do ourselves, as sites are so user friendly now you don't need a degree, just common sense and some good connections.

    We decided very early on that it would not be a discount site as many people do the online route, but are turnover obsessed and lose the purpose of margin - which is what retail should be all about.

    In the short space of time, the site has amounted to 30% of our sales in some weeks and we have the comfort that we have actually earned well out of it, as the charges for the site are extremely low and we don't carve up our margins.

    While websites can be time consuming and need constant updating, any retailers should make sure any staff that join their company are tech-savvy as well as being highly competent on the shop floor - anyone falling short of those skills are not worth employing as online retailing is a real game changer, yet has sidetracked many businesses into the wrong trading model.

    Darren Hoggett
    J&B Menswear Limited/Norwich

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