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Memo from Musgrave: Sell your store online, if not your wares

Scarcely do I have a conversation with anyone in the business these days without talk turning to ecommerce.

Whether it is how well online trading is going, or how poorly, or how challenging it is to make money, it is a subject near the top of many people’s agendas.

As heads spin with all the new acronyms, jargon and latest must-have gimmicks, I sometimes think too many people lose sight of what it is all about - ecommerce is just about selling stuff at a decent profit. It is good old-fashioned mail order dressed up with modern technology.

I admire independent boutique owners who can make a real go of this peculiar discipline, but my view, as regular readers of this column will recall, is that running a transactional site is not appropriate for all, or even many, smaller retailers. Running an etail site equates to having a second business and I am fully aware that many fashion entrepreneurs are fully occupied running a shop, let alone adding a website too. But I have been astonished recently by how many indies miss a huge trick by not properly promoting their bricks-and-mortar existence on a digital platform.

Every fashion shop needs a website as an online shop window. What I have noticed is that many independent retailers fail to even show a decent image of their shop on their site. The much-vaunted “seamless experience” for consumers just doesn’t exist. Amazingly, it is often a job in itself to uncover the address and contact details of the physical store. Too often, I have noticed, there is very little personal identity on indies’ websites. They run a familiar line-up of their brands’ lookbook images (which is why so many websites appear very similar) but there are no images of the owner and his or her key staff - the very people that provide the personal service indies always tell me they excel at.

It might be a useful exercise for indie fashion retailers to take a deep breath and look again at their sites through the eyes of a new customer who does not know the business. Surely the idea of a non-transactional website is to encourage people to come into the shop itself? I have yet to find an indie website that features, for example, a short video tour of the shop or any videos of the owner, manager or top salesperson actually talking to the viewer.

A personal complaint of mine is that many, many sites are so impersonal. How many retailers can truly say that their online appearance is different? If your site is different, please let me know.

In the realm of the high street majors, the full-year figures from Marks & Spencer this week produced no surprises. The business is still playing catch-up with its more nimble rivals (step forward Primark and Next) and I’ll believe it has turned the corner when it has shown 14 quarters of growth, as opposed to just the one.

Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to the hundreds of you who sponsored me and my four Drapers colleagues - Victoria Hart, Rosie Birchenough, Lizzie Fuller and Hannah Burnel - in the Superhero 10km run last Sunday, May 17, in aid of trade kids’ charity FTCT. We have more than doubled our target of £5,000 through the incredible generosity of the Drapers community. Donations have ranged from £5 to £1,000. Please visit Mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/victoriahart1 if you’d like to add to the total. Much to my surprise, dressed in a superman outfit I completed the 6.2-mile course in 58 minutes and enjoyed it far more than I am admitting.

Thanks for your brilliant support.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Eric Musgrave

    I am grateful to James Jones of Robinsons of Bawtry for this response. What do other indies think?:
    I wanted to share my appreciation of your viewpoint on this issue. We have been living by the same ethos for the past few years, having tried our hand at e-commerce back in 2011.
    We realised after a year of trading online that it had shifted the whole dynamic of our offering away from added-value and good service to discounts and AdWords campaigns, which distracted us from our in-store sales. Since we stopped trading online, we have focused on using our website and social media to drive people to visit us in-store.
    We’ve developed our Facebook following to almost 13,500, 95% of which are UK-based and within 50km of our store. This is now our biggest driver of new sales.
    Visit our Facebook at www.facebook.com/RobinsonsBawtry to see countless original images of our products, our staff & customers at events we host, or visit our website's About page www.robinsonsofbawtry.com/about for a virtual tour of our store with Google Maps for Business walk through.

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  • Eric Musgrave

    And this one from Kathy Danskin in Olney:
    I read with interest your opening editorial about websites. I have been an independent retailer for 10 years but for the last three I have been running a franchise for the Danish brand Noa Noa.
    My own store has its own website and I have tried very hard to keep it personal. Do take a look. Also I have found that Facebook posts need to be kept personal and local to keep customers engaged. I rarely get Likes if I use the Noa Noa press images, but I get loads of them for the things I photograph myself!

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  • Chris Bishop

    Thanks for this interesting insight Eric.

    As an award-winning digital marketing agency working within fashion retail, we're very aware of the constant need to improve and update our clients eCommerce proposition and content whilst not impinging on their brand message nor alienating their existing customer base. A difficult act to manage but not insurmountable given the right amount of expertise I assure you.

    At 7thingsmedia.com we know how to maximise budgets of all sizes to generate immediate online/mobile sales and drive new customers in store.

    I'd recommend any fashion retailer having a chat with one of our experts prior to starting or dis-banding their online activity.

    Thanks again Eric and keep up the good work
    Matthew - 7thingsmedia


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  • darren hoggett

    The Internet creates more questions than answers and has generally brought retailing to a lower level, but that's a debate for another time.

    I admire any business that can live without it and can be very time consuming. However, for those that are currently happy without it, I'm afraid there will come a time when that attitude will have to stop if you are to survive, let alone prosper. You are having a generation coming through that have never shopped in a store. While that is sad, why should they change their ways? They won't.

    We were an early adopter of a retail website in the pre Broadband days of the late 1990's, but it wasn't cost effective so it was shelved. It was viewed as an unnecessary novelty, which it was! We only came back online 18 months ago - it should have been earlier - and the world has moved on considerably since our last venture into online retailing. It now equates to at least 20% of our turnover in that short period, so what will we be in five years time? We're playing catch up, but we're still in the game and aren't losing focus of our shop which is still the real money spinner.

    I'd advise any retailer that they should go online, because if you don't, conditions will force you to, and by then, it may be already too late.

    Darren James Hoggett
    Owner
    J&B Menswear Limited/Norwich

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  • Eric, We read your opening editorial with interest and agree to be in the game it’s important to have a strong online presence regardless of being transactional.
    We’re a small boutique in Welwyn village Hertfordshire run by stylist Susan Bull with 4 part time members of staff and have been open for ten years. When we started to put our website together we made a conscious decision not to trade on-line. It just wasn’t appropriate for us. We asked ourselves what was our unique selling point and decided that it’s our store and our staff and we didn’t want to dilute our offer.
    However we did want to make our website as personal and appealing as possible in order to really promote our store and the individual service we offer. The home page opens with a video of Susan talking a little about herself but more about the general ethos of the shop. We have a Meet the Team page with a quirky video introducing key members of staff and background info including personal likes/dislikes. We felt it very important that our existing and prospective new customers could get to know us. We’ve been told in the past that small boutiques can be quite intimidating places and we wanted the friendly tone of our website to dispel the myth. We have an up to date news page with details of new brands, sales and discounts as well as our incredibly popular in-house fashion shows that we hold 2 or 3 times a year. Contact details are clear and there are shots of both inside and out the shop.
    We’re active on Facebook where we talk directly to our customers. If we decide to try and increase our reach by boosting a particular post we adopt a more generic tone. We’ve employed the services of a creative, media savvy local guy on an ad hoc basis to send out emails to our customer database which currently has in excess of 1,000 contacts. We’ve found this invaluable in bringing people down to the store and increasing footfall.

    We think our website counters every negative observation made. We’d love to know what you think. www.susuboutique.co.uk

    Susan Bull
    Owner, SuSu Boutique Welwyn

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  • Eric Musgrave

    An email arrives from my good pal Annie Furbank in Cambridgeshire...

    You obviously haven't looked at our website lately!
    https://www.annefurbank.co.uk

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