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How to make the move from bricks to clicks

Following on from last month’s feature on newly opened Bristol indie Garment Quarter, owner John Reid begins his regular column on setting up an independent. This week, he talks about launching a website.

So, I’m sitting on the train home from my weekly trip to London which, aside from the usual workload, was truncated by a rather extravagant shopping trip to the West End. Carrying luggage with shopping bags, you see the allure of online shopping.

We recently launched, our transactional website that will run in unison with our store. I believe online is crucial to the independent retailer now.

Deadline teething problems

Our original intention was to open the store and website simultaneously with a huge fanfare. As it turned out, we opened both later than we would have liked and the website followed nearly a month after the store. While the store launch was initially set back by the availability of shopfitters, the real reason both were delayed was our wish to get both right from the start.

Many people think shops just appear from nowhere, and especially so in the case of websites. This is certainly not the case. I have the luxury of my business partner Pete Lake being a software architect. However, he had never previously delved into the wonderful world of HTML. He was quick to find that getting an image to sit two pixels to the right without moving the rest of the page was going to become one of his least favourite pastimes. I’m not sure he enjoyed me telling him, “yes it is noticeable and it needs to be changed” countless times. The alternative to doing it ourselves was to pay anything up to £20,000.

As for fulfilment, if you are running your site alongside your store and sharing stock like us, you have to think about how that will be managed. There is nothing worse than not being able to fulfil an online order due to being out of stock, and you will struggle to win back the customer. Linking a website to an EPoS system takes time and (usually) money, but it is crucial. In our case, Pete wrote a piece of software to link the two (estimated cost for someone else to do it: £1,000).

Choosing cheap delivery carriers may be enticing, but there is probably a reason why the service is cheap. If your anticipated shipment volumes are small, however, be prepared for nothing to be cheap. Try to picture yourself as the customer and place your expectations there; then imagine it’s December 23 and you ‘need it now’. This is also where customer service comes into play. Going the extra mile should be a given - we’re an independent and “going that extra mile” should be our USP.

Then there is the matter of how you are going to accept payment. You will need a new merchant account and a payment gateway with a provider like Sage Pay. These processes can take a month to implement and, yes, they cost. These then need to be integrated with your website software. If your payment gateway doesn’t feature the most up-to-date security features, you will also have to get yourself PCI certified. Oh, and have you actually found out the domain name you would like to use is available and purchased that, along with hosting and a server?

Looking the part

Once this framework is in place, you can return to the visual aesthetics. I chose to employ a specialist who has worked with photography and content before - his role is split between this, marketing and the shopfloor to justify the cost. Some would see this as a luxury, but my view is if you are going to do something, do it properly. The ghost mannequin effect we use takes a lot of time, but we believe it is far superior to quickly shooting and editing on a mannequin or laying the product flat. For spring 11, we will also be doing model shoots. Ideally we would have launched with these, but given the proximity to Christmas, we chose to save the cash for stock.

Online marketing and search engine optimisation are key to the success of your venture. Our starting point has been OK; however, we are already rewriting our descriptions and pages to enhance our performance. Opening an online store is like opening an outlet on a derelict street with no passing trade - you need to work to bring the customer to you.

Once you have all of the above in place, you are pretty much ready. Unless, two days before your already delayed launch date, you completely redesign the layout. Like I did…

Garment Quarter is at 25 Penn Street, Bristol. It opened in October and stocks Vivienne Westwood Red Label, Twenty8Twelve and Unconditional

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