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Bricks and Clicks
CWB’s Rebecca Jackson speaks to four schoolwear independents who have made the successful transition from bricks and mortar to online. 

By Rebecca Jackson

1 August 2014

CWB explores the lessons the stores have learned along the way, including the difference having an online selling platform makes during the busy Back To School selling period.

EMMA WARE
A Class Apart, Dinas Powys, Vale of Glamorgan

www.aclassapart.co.uk

How long have you had your transactional website?  
Nine years.

What level of investment did you make?
Initially quite a lot. I invested £4,000, which I found out later was more than I  needed to pay. Just over a year ago I had to change the website because the platform it was on no longer existed. I revamped it to its current format.

Is the e-commerce arm of your business growing?
It is definitely growing. I’ve started getting enquiries from potential customers in Bristol (I’m based in Cardiff) and I think that’s down to them coming across the store online. The ease of browsing online and social media has hopefully had an impact on business. I have a board up in-store with my social-media links on, so customers can see the information while they are browsing. I also have business cards with the information on, too.

What percentage of your business do you envisage will be done online compared to in-store over the next few years?
At the moment, it is a small percentage. And while I am actively marketing my store online, I don’t want it to take off massively as I like the customer experience.

How important is your transactional website during the peak Back To School selling period?
Last year it was very busy, and I think it was partly due to changes I made to the website – last year was the first year customers could set up a payment plan online. I have always provided my customers with that option, but taking it online opened up my store to more customers. This year, I’ve had lots of orders and reservations using the online service. Our delivery and payment options are also flexible. We can deliver to home or school and deliver for free within the area.

Do parents expect to buy school uniform online as well as in-store nowadays?
I think so. There is more choice and availability online. If you want a specific colour or embroidery service, the variety online is vast. Supermarkets also offer special discounts on school uniform. It’s the way of the world now. When people get home from a long day, the internet is there and they can browse without leaving the house. However, I still find I get a lot from my repeat customers – they generally know what they want and the sizes they need.


MUBASHIR TUFAIL
Havering Schoolwear, Romford, Essex
www.haveringschoolwear.co.uk

How long have you had your transactional website?  
Six years.

What level of investment did you make?
I’m unsure of the exact amount. It is ongoing, so we contribute money to the site as and when we need to.

Is the e-commerce arm of your business growing?
As we are not on social media sites, we try to focus on updating the website as often as possible. We don’t have a dedicated person working on the website, or on the marketing side of things, so we just contribute time to the site when we need to. We don’t have as much time as we would like to focus on the online side of the business because we are a small shop and a small team, but we do make sure to advertise any offers on the website and that drives sales towards the store and online.

What percentage of your business do you envisage will be done online compared to in-store over the next few years?
I think the majority of our trade will remain in-store. Our customers like the hands-on approach – they like to try things on, get the size right and feel it in their hands – and you don’t get that online. Also, I think that people don’t always know what they need. Our online service cuts the queues down – which can be a good thing during the Back To School period because it gets very busy – but I still think the majority of people like to come to the shop.  

How important is your transactional website during the peak Back To School selling period?
It is very important because the website is the first landing point for most customers. They can check out any news and information about the store online, and have the option to purchase on there if they want to avoid the queues at the shop, too.

Do parents expect to be able to buy school uniform online as well as in-store nowadays?
Yes, there is definitely an expectation.


JULIE FORSTER
Ciel School Uniform & Accessories, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne
www.cielschooluniform.co.uk

How long have you had your transactional website?  
Since April 2012.

What level of investment did you make?
I went to a very good local IT expert and discussed my requirements. The building of the site cost me around £2,500. Apart from the financial cost, I invested a huge amount of my time taking the photos – or requesting photos from my suppliers – writing product copy and categorising each product. This process took a couple of months to complete; there was quite a bit of time spent working with Gareth and my online payment provider, too.

Is the e-commerce arm of your business growing?
Yes, certainly. Initially I was naive and expected overnight success. It doesn’t work like that. You have to continually push forward, get your name out there and invest time in getting to know your market and the internet. I use Twitter a lot and would encourage any independent to use it as a tool to grow their business. There are some great local networking groups on Twitter that support small businesses and, if you use them, it helps to get your Google ranking up. The higher your ranking, the more chance you have of internet users seeing your website. I also use Facebook. It’s linked to my Twitter account so any photos I post or comments I make go to both my Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is the future and we need to embrace it.

What percentage of your business do you envisage will be done online compared to in-store over the next few years?
There is no getting away from it. Many shoppers still like to see and feel a product before they buy. My business head tells me that the future will see more business done online than walking through the shop door, so I would say 65 per cent internet and 35 per cent walk-in. The reasons for this are shortage of time for parents, inadequate parking and the general demise of the high street. As the price of rent continues to increase, why wouldn’t we grow our internet businesses and leave the high street behind? Personally, I enjoy talking to my customers and get a large number ringing or emailing me for advice on sizes and so on. I encourage them to look at my website, order via the site and have the item delivered to their home or the store. They appreciate the service; service is everything.

How important is your transactional website during the peak Back To School selling period?
It is the busiest time for any school uniform supplier, and my website increases the number of satisfied customers. I like my customers to be delighted with the service they’ve received, whether it’s via the internet or in-store. I can also take orders and payments over the phone. I find this option is popular with some of the local parents. Back To School is a pretty scary time for parents, children and retailers. The more you have to offer parents by way of obtaining uniform, the better. If those ways are seamless and stress-free, they keep coming back year after year – and they tell their friends, too!

Do parents expect to also be able to buy school uniform online as well as in-store nowadays?
Most of my walk-in customers are surprised when I tell them I have an online shop. I think it’s important for the future to keep reminding them that I do. Also, you can display an awful lot more products online than you can in a small shop, so it improves your chance of a sale. Currently, I don’t think parents or schools expect you to have an online offering, but why wouldn’t you? If you have the stock, why not show it to millions of people rather than the selected ones who visit your shop?


MOLLY BURTON
JSmiths & Sons Schoolwear, Enfield and Potters Bar
www.smithsschoolwear.co.uk

How long have you had your transactional website?  
We’ve had the new site for just over a year. Before that, we had a basic site for around five years.

What level of investment did you make?
I haven’t made any investment to the site – someone I know set it up for me.

Is the e-commerce arm of your business growing?
It’s constantly growing. In terms of driving the growth, we have a newsletter that goes out to our customers via email. We also send emails offering discounts in the summer.

What percentage of your business do you envisage will be done online, compared to in-store, over the next few years?
I’m not sure in terms of percentage, although it is increasing every year. We find that there are lots more people buying and browsing online now.

How important is your transactional website during the peak Back To School selling period?
It is very important. We usually have queues out the door during Back to School, so our online service comes in useful around this time. Our customers can reserve products online and have them delivered to the store. We have a separate queue for people collecting ordered items, so that helps a lot in the busy periods.

Do parents expect to also be able to buy school uniform online as well as in-store nowadays?
Yes, there is definitely an expectation there. The retail industry has changed since we first started the business. When we started out, the idea of having a transactional website was unheard of. In a short space of time the retail industry, and the way our customers buy our products, has changed.


 
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