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Webbed feet

The personal approach has always been a key strength for independent footwear retailers, and now some are discovering that the same strategy can be just as rewarding online

Rather than vanishing beneath the waves of competition from discounters, supermarkets and multiples, one long-standing footwear independent in the traditional Somerset seaside resort of Burnham-on-Sea is fighting back.

In June 2006, 56-year-old family footwear business Shickle Shoes launched a transactional website, Footwear4you.co.uk. Within a year, the business has doubled its annual turnover to almost £500,000.

"We've seen a phenomenal increase in trade, where online business is sometimes higher than in the shop," says owner Geoffrey Shickle. "Since we launched the website it has reached 50% to 60% of total turnover, and since April we have been extremely busy, selling Rohde and Van Dal sandals especially. Whether it's the fine weather or part of a pattern, we don't know yet."

Shickle Shoes is one of several footwear independents across the UK that are finding that their traditional strength - personalised service - is a competitive advantage when it comes to online sales.

One of the big decisions Shickle took was to ask his assistant, Constance Davis, to put her picture on the home page alongside the phone number. Constance was doubtful at first, but Shickle says it was a clever move, giving his customers a familiar point of contact. "Some are surprised there really is a person called Constance at the other end of the phone," he says. "Some people are very familiar with the internet, but others, if it is their first time, are nervous and want to know how it all works, so they phone us. People like the personal contact."

Shickle's years of experience in the older, comfort end of the footwear market taught him it was vital to sell reliably-fitting brands for his target audience. "We therefore identified three major labels that a large percentage of our customers were already familiar with," he explains. "So if you order a pair of Grenson shoes in a size nine and a half, you can have a fair degree of confidence that they'll fit."

The appeal of personal service stretches across the entire footwear market, including the premium end. Frances Chalmers owns Exclusive Footwear in York, which sells brands such as Patrick Cox, Moschino and Gina online at www.exclusivefootwear.co.uk. She says the opportunity to speak to someone is often a point of difference. "We offer one point of contact - customers phone up and know the names of the team," she says. "When they email, they often receive a response within seconds and even late at night, because I regularly work then.

"Also, they often ask for recommendations about the season's colours and what to wear for a particular occasion. Sometimes I will even call them if I think there is a shoe they would like," she adds. On average, about 60% of her customers phone for assistance with their order, with men calling more often than women.

However, maintaining high levels of service means having the staff to cope with demand. Kylie Jensen-Smith set up her bridal footwear business The Accessory Boutique in 2003 as a purely online player with a basic website, www.theaccessoryboutique.com.

When her husband Roger Smith joined the team last September the site was relaunched, and turnover has since grown by 430%. "The toughest task has been fulfilling orders," she says. "When you start small you can manage reasonably well with just a couple of staff, but as the business grows it becomes a lot harder. Given the nature of our business we have quite a lot of exchanges with women wanting the perfect shoe size for their wedding, but they need to receive the same level of service as during the original sale."

The Accessory Boutique is recruiting another part-time member of staff to add to the two it already has, but Smith says it is not an easy decision. "We have to manage customer service levels without overspending," he explains.

Online footwear retailing has had some surprises for first-timers, the biggest being how much they have to spend to remain visible to internet users through search engines such as Google. "Some purely high street stores believe that in running a business on the internet you have no outgoings," says Smith. "But our advertising is a huge chunk of our costs and it's taken us by surprise how much of our spending goes on that. At the moment about 15% to 20% of our costs are advertising, which is really high."

One of the advantages independents have over pure online players is their bricks and mortar premises. The Accessory Boutique is looking for a site for a showroom near to its base in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The showroom would be used on an appointments-only basis, which Smith believes could probably be filled from Monday to Saturday with interested customers and suppliers. The fact it will be open by appointment only means that although the location needs to be easily accessible, it does not have to be in a prominent, and hence expensive, location. Again, the aim is to provide the highest level of personal service.

Exclusive Footwear launched its online and bricks and mortar business from a 330sq ft store in York in November 2005. It serves as a warehouse, office, showroom and sales area, and many of the brands wanted to see a physical store before they would sell to Chalmers in the first place. She is now looking for a second site of similar size in Newcastle upon Tyne.

She says that although sales through the shop only make up about 20% of turnover, it often helps to balance out the business. "There might be a lull on the web and then the shop kicks in, or the internet might be really sailing and the shop is not so good," she says. It also reassures customers. "I sometimes go to a website and wonder where the business is run from: it could be from their back bedroom for all you know."

INDEPENDENTS ONLINE: WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

James Roper, chief executive of Interactive Retail in Media Group

- Do everything you can to instil confidence, providing a clear physical address and a telephone landline.

- Being visible on the internet is the hardest thing to achieve, and something that you have to work at with a lot of determination.

- View online retailing as a long-term strategic development. People who go into it for a quick buck fail. You have to see it through and gradually make your site better.

- Join the ISIS (Internet Shopping is Safe) Trustmark Scheme. It will make you more user-friendly if you stick to its rules of basic housekeeping and it will help you to avoid legal pitfalls.

- Keep your site simple. Customers want to be able to find something and clearly understand what it is, so you need to have nice clean pictures, clear information and adequate text descriptions of the product.

Barbara Aspin, affiliate manager for website design company Sitewizard

- Customer testimonials are important, so if someone sends in an email saying how happy they are with the service, ask if it can be used on the site.

- If you have a picture of your shop, it must be absolutely perfect. If it is taken on a rainy day, for instance, it will have a negative impact on potential customers. Invest in professional photography.

- Make sure that the product pictures on your site are uniform, with the same background and same-size images.

- Spend time setting up as many different links as possible to other complementary websites.

- Use the statistics provided about site usage to find out when people are visiting your website. If there is a peak during lunch hours, be sure to maximise your advertising spend to tie in with that.

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