An online-first approach has turned transformed a family-run shoe shop in Cheshire into an international etail powerhouse – and 2015 winner of the Drapers Independent Footwear Retailer Award.
Nestled among charming cafes, luxury interior design stores and premium beauty salons on the high street in Hale, Cheshire, is Drapers Footwear Awards 2015 Independent Footwear Retailer of the Year, Shoetique. To the untrained eye this store resembles a normal mainstream shoe shop, but closer inspection reveals an indie with a booming online business that has aspirations for expansion.
Husband and wife team Stuart and Kate Conroy have transformed a flagging bricks-and-mortar footwear shop into digital-first business that is on track for sales of £3.5m this year – more than half of which (52%) come from its website, a third (34%) come from Amazon and 8% from eBay. The physical store contributes just 6% of sales revenue.
Growing a single store in Cheshire into an etail powerhouse has required considerable investment and new skills from Shoetique’s owners, as well as a twin-track approach to online and physical sales.
The business began life in the 1970s as a stall in Altrincham Market, run by Stuart’s parents, Sid and Sandra. The shop on Hale High Street followed in 1992. But ironically, the online focus began when Stuart’s parents, decided to wind up the business in early 2009 and sell surplus stock on Amazon. Within weeks sales through the etailer outstripped those from the store, and suddenly a new life for Shoetique seemed possible.
Amazon US is a growing opportunity, currently accounting for 10% of our Amazon business
“I was taking all the shoes to the post office and a lightbulb went off in my head,” says Stuart.
After taking over the business in March 2009, Stuart and Kate launched their slick, fully transactional website to work in tandem with the shop. They have never looked back.
“Last year we launched on Amazon US, Germany, France, Spain and Italy,” says Stuart. “Amazon US is a growing opportunity, currently accounting for 10% of our Amazon business. This year we’re on track to do more on e-Bay than in our store for the first time. We wouldn’t have believed that five years ago. This year we also launched on eBay in France, Spain and the US.”
The first Shoetique website went live in November 2009 and took two months to launch, at a cost of £2,000. A year later Stuart and Kate invested £10,000 in a more sophisticated platform, designed in collaboration with ecommerce service provider Visualsoft. Sub-sites Slippertique and Wellytique followed in 2012 and 2013, and are now integrated into the main Shoetique website.
Last year, as part of a £12,000 upgrade to optimise the website across mobile, desktop and tablet, the site became fully responsive.
“It was a drastic change and immediately afterwards the conversion rate dropped,” Stuart recalls. “So we carried out more testing, running both the old and new product page simultaneously. Users were split tested, meaning they saw the same information, but presented in different ways.”
Now all the big changes to the website are tested this way and only ones that show a higher conversion rate are implemented.
The indie also collaborates with search engine optimisation agency Media Works, which helps it connect with bloggers who appeal to its core 45-to-65-year-old female demographic, including UK-based My Fashion Life and Fashion for Lunch.
Facebook is another big focus.
“I remember Stuart saying in 2009 he wanted 10,000 likes on Facebook,” Kate recalls. “I was thinking, ‘How are you going to get that?’ Now we have more than 23,000 likes. To help drive engagement, we put a feature on the checkout page that said, ‘Like our Facebook page to get £1 off your order.’ Facebook really works for our target audience, as lots of mums use it.”
Facebook really works for our target audience, as lots of mums use it
Whereas in 2013 70% of Shoetique’s customers shopped via desktop, this year device usage has shifted to 40% desktop, 40% tablet and 20% mobile. To provide a truly seamless experience, a screen in store enables consumers to shop the whole collection online.
Shoetique has offered free next-day delivery and click-and-collect for the past two years.
“We used to offer free returns, but margins were getting squeezed and, coupled with the discounts we were already offering, it didn’t make sense,” Stuart explains. “So in February we started charging £2.95. It hasn’t damaged the business. We have a returns rate of 17%, which is lower than the industry norm25-50%I think because we provide sizing advice on each product page, 360-degree spin photography and at least seven different angled product shots.”
To service the burgeoning online business Shoetique opened a 1,500 sq ft warehouse four miles away in Altrincham in July 2011. The company has since invested £75,000 in expanding to 7,500 sq ft split across three warehouses on the same site.
“We’ve also invested in a state-of-the-art technology for our photography room. We have a 360-degree spin photo machine to take all our product shots and videos,” says Stuart. “We’re also in the process of upgrading to a warehouse management cloud-based system that will enable us to pick and pack around 100 orders an hour.”
We’ve also invested in a state-of-the-art technology for our photography room
There are eight full-time staff in the warehouse and a further 10 part-time workers. The store has three full-time staff.
Whereas online the split is 95% women’s shoes, and 5% men’s and kids’, in the store women’s styles occupy 98% of space. Prices start from £30 for an Earthspirit sandal rising to Emu boots at £200. The indie’s biggest brand is Fitflop, from which it stocks 250 pairs across men’s and women’s, followed by Skechers, Gabor, Clarks and Rieker.
“Shoetique has more than trebled its business with us over the past two and a half years,” reports Skechers national accounts manager Andy Blowers. “Our successful partnership has been built by doing a lot of test-and-react range building in previous years.”
The indie typically introduces 10 new brands a year in-store and online, sourced from shows such as Pure London, Moda in Birmingham and GDS in Düsseldorf. Toms, Ipanema flipflops, and Birkenstock and Unisa sandals were added for spring 15, while for autumn 15 Shoetique has introduced Columbus waterproof boots and Kickers. Ugg, Converse and Nike are firmly on the wishlist going forward.
Clarks north account manager Gary Brown admires Shoetique’s strong online-driven business and brand mix: “In terms of product mix they haven’t gone brand crazy and instead have opted for a selection of tried-and-tested labels. The in-store customer service separates them from other indies, as does the slick online service. In terms of another store, they could consider opening up in another market town. Kidswear is definitely an area to explore.”
Managing director of mainstream footwear brand Josef Seibel UK, Martin Ingram, commends the retailer’s forward-thinking approach online: “The presentation, functionality and design of the Shoetique website is one of the best in the industry for the end consumer. Superb marketing has driven clicks to the site and sales success has followed.”
Back in the store, Stuart and Kate are proud to own the longest-serving shop in Hale.
“We realised the big thing that would differentiate us is our customer service,” says Kate. “It’s nice for the store to still be in Hale and, although the shop has changed a lot from the market stall, the foundations were there. It would’ve been harder to start our own business from scratch.”
Indeed, Stuart cut his retail teeth helping out on the stall after school to earn pocket money. By 16 he was running his own stall next to his mum, selling discount footwear. Even after the Hale store opened in 1992, Sandra continued to run the stall until 2005.
“I always had shoes in my blood,” says Stuart. “Working on the market taught me how to run my own business and gave me a real work ethic. I understood profit and loss, and working out what sold well.”
After graduating from Leeds University in 1997 with a BA in Business Studies, he sold shoes at Altrincham and Stockport markets to fund a year and a half travelling. At 24 he joined the Royal Sun Alliance graduate training scheme, moving into a series of marketing jobs in London before meeting Kate in 2005.
When in 2008 the pair decided to move back to Cheshire, Shoetique was not part of the plan.
“Then Stuart’s parents announced they wanted to retire and had given notice on their lease,” Kate recalls. “I suggested to Stu that we should think about taking over.”
From £200,000 in 2009 we quadrupled turnover in our first year and hit the £1m net turnover mark in less than 18 months
The first priority was to build the website and refurbish the shop. In 2011 the pair converted the stockroom at the rear of the store into a third room, taking the selling space to 670 sq ft. Business boomed.
“From £200,000 in 2009 we quadrupled turnover in our first year and hit the £1m net turnover mark in less than 18 months. The rate of growth was phenomenal,” Stuart recalls.
“However, in 2014 we were hit by the rise in discount culture and other retailers being intent on cutting prices, which unsettled the market. Autumn 14, in particular, was our most challenging season yet, especially because autumn is always so weather-dependent. Add to that Black Friday, which increased the need to discount to clear stock. This ultimately impacts margins.”
He adds: “We turned over more money during the 2014 Christmas trading period compared with the previous year, but profits were down. To offset this, this year we’ve already planned our Black Friday Sale, using discounted stock, so margins will be maintained. We are happy to turnover less as long as our profits are maintained or improved.
“We’re making continuous improvements to our online business and we’re tracking ahead of last year. We’ve already experienced record days this year when we processed more than 1,000 orders in a single day in July. For 2015 we expect net turnover to be in excess of £3.5m.”
To expand the physical store’s capacity, the Conroys want to expand their kids’ or men’s ranges for 2016, by refitting the shop and knocking down walls to free up space for additional product, or by opening another unit in the town.
Embracing ecommerce has enabled this family-run independent to reinvent itself as an internatonal multi-channel business with a strong physical store presence.
And Stuart’s aspirations are to be even bigger: “I’d love a big one-stop shop like Schuh or Office, but we’re not there quite yet.”