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Time to get tangled up in the web

After deciding to take the plunge, Rebecca Furbank finds online retail is a tough market to crack

I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, about to take a leap into the vast ocean of what is known as etailing. It's a daunting prospect, selling online - a completely different concept to my current bricks and mortar location.

I have firm foundations around my business. Having been trading for 25 years I know my customers and know my market. I know my competition, so if a shop opens down the road I know about it.

In contrast, my virtual shop has no foundations, no customers, thousands of competitors right 'next door' and nothing more than an educated guess as to what my turnover will be.

Obviously I don't have to invest in a property, although I do have to invest in the technology needed to get the store online. My staff costs will not be as high as in a bricks and mortar shop, but card security and data protection will be paramount.

In deciding to go online I had to look at this side of the business in a totally different way. I can't recreate what I do in the shop. My customers can't touch the product, and my staff can't build up a relationship with a customer and in turn help them put a wardrobe together. I have to market to a completely different type of customer - someone I will never set eyes on.

However much time I spend researching brands on the internet, I will never know all the sites where they are available. My online customers will have more choice than all the high streets in the UK put together, and I will have to try to compete in that market.

If I'm not offering customers an exclusive garment, the add-ons will be so important. The packaging, the delivery time and the efficiency of payments will become crucial in the purchase of my online items.

Navigation around the website and the purchasing process need to be simple and quick. So many times I've got fed up with the buying process online that I've abandoned my attempt.

In terms of my online offer, I can't just put items on the website that I have in the shop - these need to be carefully thought out. I don't want to have a huge volume of sales just to have a large percentage of returns because fit isn't consistent or the fabric isn't quite what was expected. Information about each item has to be clear and detailed without being so in depth that customers don't bother to read it.

My brand, Anne Furbank, will suddenly become more important. Word of mouth recommendations on websites aren't quite as forthcoming as personal recommendations. 'You must go and visit this website, it was so easy to navigate and I bought some lovely things' doesn't quite have the same impact as 'I visited this fantastic shop, the staff were wonderful and it had some great collections.'

There is a lot of work to be done over the next few months, but the enthusiasm is certainly there and the adrenalin and excitement is growing. Anne Furbank Online - here we come.

- Rebecca Furbank is a partner in womenswear store Anne Furbank in Buckden in Cambridgeshire.

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