The UK recorded the highest ever number of online store openings for a four-month period between 2 February and 20 June 2020. Growth Intelligence, which provides artificial intelligence to help businesses maximise marketing, analysed small businesses’ websites in the UK, and found 85,000 ecommerce sites launched to help keep shuttered businesses afloat as the country plunged into lockdown.
More than 10% of these new ventures were selling fashion and clothing – the largest category – and many were independents with established bricks-and-mortar stores embracing ecommerce for the first time.
Even before the pandemic, Louise Cleverly-Lace, director of Vanilla Norwich, which opened on the outskirts of city in 1998, had spent a decade trying to convince the womenswear store’s owners to embrace ecommerce.
People want to shop locally, because it is an opportunity to support their local economies, and they want to be more sustainable
Shimona Mehta, managing director EMEA at the ecommerce software company Shopify
“It just seemed really overwhelming for them,” she tells Drapers. But when “non-essential” retail was forced to close on 23 March 2020, the issue became pressing and Cleverly-Lace was finally given the green light. The boutique’s site launched in April 2020.
Cleverly-Lace bought Vanilla Norwich in August 2020, when previous owners Anita and Abhi Vadir retired. She has chosen to run the store online only.
“I saw [reopening the physical boutique] was an incredibly difficult thing to do, even though it was very established,” she explains. “Going online was a really positive move for us.” She relaunched the website in September 2020 to reflect her vision and within three days had 100 orders.
Show your best side on social
Emphasising local connections on Facebook and Instagram is a key way to stand out online. Around 60% of Vanilla’s customers are from Norfolk and Suffolk.
“North Norfolk has become a really popular staycation spot,” says Cleverly-Lace. “So, I’m using as an added bonus that the brand has originated from Norwich. Showing what a beautiful, wonderful city it is on my social media is really important.”
Shimona Mehta, managing director EMEA at the ecommerce software company Shopify, agrees it is a good strategy for independents: “People want to shop locally, because it is an opportunity to support their local economies, and they want to be more sustainable.”
A lot of people, before they shop, will Google you to see if you have any recommendations or reviews
Ruby Lee, creative director at Studio 77
Social media also allows independent retailers to emphasise the personal touch.
Cleverly-Lace uses Instagram to showcase new product arrivals and offer styling tips: “People buy into me and my personality. I think, as a one-man band online, you need to share yourself in a genuine way.” She also believes showing herself wearing the products gives a realistic idea of fit, which has helped to keep her returns rate down to 14%.
Mehta suggests a local focus can feed into an omnichannel approach that seamlessly blends customers’ online and offline experiences with a brand: “People are looking for more [Covid] safety in their shopping right now, so things like buying online and picking up kerbside is popular.
“People are also willing to pay more for same-day delivery. If you are shopping locally, what a great service that is to be able to provide.”
Expand digital activities
Independent boutiques that already had transactional websites have also invested in them more heavily during the Covid crisis – and cashed in. Online sales, as a percentage of total retail sales in the UK, soared from 20.2% in January 2020 to 36.3% in January 2021, Office for National Statistics data shows. While online sales dipped slightly after retail reopened in April 2021, they remained well above pre-pandemic levels, at 27.3% in May 2021.
Bod & Ted, a womenswear boutique in Tunbridge Wells, has had a transactional website for 10 years, but sales increased 50% between 2019 and 2020, and by the same amount again so far in 2021. They now make up 30% of the total. It expanded its online offer and digital activities to boost sales.
Top tips to improve ecommerce websites
Shimona Mehta, managing director EMEA at Shopify, says:
- Make it easy to search for products with clear categories on the home page and a good search function.
- Create a seamless omnichannel experience. Offer click and collect and in-store returns for online purchases.
- Provide all the information a customer may want about products so customers do not have to Google details. Reviews, FAQs and good product imagery go a long way.
Ruby Lee, creative director at Studio 77, says:
- Don’t be afraid to have too many “add to cart” or other call-to-action buttons. People are on your site to shop. It is your job as an ecommerce business owner to guide them in a clear and direct way.
- Include a diverse range of people on your website. Models of different ages, sizes and races are non-negotiable these days.
- Publish customer reviews to build trust.
Bod & Ted’s owner and head buyer, Sophie Brown, says: “We did more pay per click marketing [with Google Ads], and we got more brands in. We started sending some daily newsletters instead of weekly. We were doing weekly Instagram Lives, which became really popular, too.”
Instagram is the biggest driver of sales for Vanilla and Bod & Ted. Verified brands can tag products in images to send users directly to their website to buy without any fees, while some small sellers arrange sales with customers via direct messaging.
Websites still matter
Nevertheless, having a good transactional website is still essential.
Mehta explains: “The website is the one point where you fully own the narrative. Your site is where you are going to have full discoverability [by search engines] and a full merchant journey, so the site absolutely does continue to be the centre of how you build your brand.”
Creative director of website design and branding company Studio 77, Ruby Lee, agrees: “With the rise of social media has also come the fall of social media in terms of people deleting [their feeds] and deciding they want to do a digital detox. So, by not having a website, you are missing out on quite a large chunk of people that you could be targeting.”
Don’t buy anything black. I can’t sell anything black online
Louise Cleverly-Lace, director of Vanilla Norwich
Websites are a key way businesses can build customers’ trust. Bod & Ted publishes positive customer reviews on its Instagram feed and website, and is looking to integrate product reviews on the site, too.
Lee says this is a feature commonly missed on mall business websites: “A lot of people, before they shop, will Google you to see if you have any recommendations or reviews. It is really important that you do get reviews because, if your business is good, your customers will be your best marketing asset.”
Seagreen, a premium womenswear retailer with two boutiques near Dublin, has had a website since 2012. The store developed its brochure-style website into a transactional site in 2018. Pre-pandemic, online accounted for 10%-15% of all sales. That is now 30%.
Seagreen’s manager, Siobhan Mason, says it stands out online for the same reasons its physical boutique does – customer service: “If we have a new delivery and we see it is selling out online or in store, I’m able to respond quickly to reorder it. And if customers are asking in store or messaging us on social media, we can reassure them it is going to be back. If something gets delayed, we can pick up the phone to them straight away.”
And websites must be easy to navigate.
“Over the last year, 150 million people tried online shopping for the first time [citing the Emarketer Global Ecommerce 2020 report],” says Mehta. “And those folks are still learning. [Retailers] need to focus on simplicity and searching on their sites.” She adds that clear navigation, such as well-defined categories on the top bar, is an area that can be improved to see immediate effects.
Seagreen’s Mason says one pitfall for independent retailers is trying to develop websites too quickly: “A lot of small businesses had to build one through Covid. If you do it quickly, you’re going to spend a lot more money on it because you’re going to have to go back and forth between your designer and your developer asking for changes with quick turnarounds.”
There can also be pressure for new ecommerce businesses to offer the same services as established players. Vanilla Norwich has, for the time being, stopped orders from outside the European Union until Cleverly-Lace is certain those customers will not be hit by delays.
“I have compared myself to others and thought, ‘I should be doing this, or I should be doing that,” she says. “When those thoughts come over me, I take a step back and re-evaluate my core values. It will be something that the business evolves to do.”
Work in progress
Selling online is a constant learning curve, as Cleverly-Lace discovered: “Don’t buy anything black. I can’t sell anything black online.
“Or jeans – I’ve learned very quickly, women like to try them on and you need to feel them.”
Websites also need constant development. Brown says building new features has increased Bod & Ted’s conversion rate: “Easier returns and helpful size guides have helped make it more appealing and easier for our customers to shop online.”
Your website does not have to be perfect all the time
Louise Cleverly-Lace, director of Vanilla Norwich
Cleverly-Lace found trying to build a perfect website intimidating at first. “The biggest things I’ve learned from being online are: don’t be too harsh on yourself,” she says. “Your website does not have to be perfect all the time. We spoke to somebody at Shopify and they just said: ‘You know your website will never be finished.’”
The trend for shopping both online and locally means the timing has never been better for independents to invest in ecommerce. Competition may be fierce but what has made them stand out on the high street – originality and exceptional customer service – is precisely what allows them to shine online.