In just five years electronic cigarette retailer ECigaretteDirect.co.uk has gone from selling online to having shops across Wales.
This year has seen the company grow at an astounding rate with the first seven units opening, each turning a profit within just seven days, and two more planned by the end of 2013.
The first shop opened in Neath in April after the company recorded a growth of 478% during 2012. The second shop opened in Swansea just one month later.
With a high street presence in other towns including Llanelli, Barry, Carmarthen, Bridgend and Ammanford, EcigaretteDirect.co.uk is proof that online businesses can make it on the high street.
Here its co-founder, James Dunworth, shares his tips on how to take an online business, offline.
- 1. Test the water
It’s always important to think big and set yourself a challenging long term goal. However, before you get carried away and try to open five stores in the first month, test the water to make sure your idea is going to work. Do your research – speak to local people and other shopkeepers to find out about the area, and speak to potential customers to see if they’d be likely to visit the store. Spend some time in the area so you get a feel for the amount of footfall that’s likely to pass your outlet and be practical – for example; is it located close to you? – remember it’s your first store so you will need to be very hands on.
- 2. Find the right location
Location has to be your number one priority. Don’t think about where you’d like to open a store, think about where your potential customers will shop. That’s where you want to be.
Also bear in mind the logistics. If you’re planning on opening multiple outlets, then they all need to be located close to good roads links to save you time when visiting them. This will also make it much easier when stock is delivered. All our stores are along the M4 corridor which makes getting around to each of them so much simpler.
Other important considerations include are they close to a bank? If not, how are staff going to bank the money at the end of the day and do you really want the risk of leaving funds in the shop overnight?
- 3. Recruit the right team
At the beginning of this year we employed just seven people, now we employ 24 with the number expected to grow by the end of the year. This is an important area to spend some time and money on. Recruiting the right staff is important – we found the best way to attract the right applicants was privately. The people who responded to our ads wanted to work and were interested in the product we were selling. These people are your brand ambassadors so if they believe in what you sell and what you do, you’re starting at a good place.
Once you have the right staff, you need to make sure you retain them. We pay a living wage salary and ensure our staff feel valued and are rewarded appropriately.
We also invest time in training our team, we regularly run product training sessions, customer service workshops, sales training and all work from a customer service manual.
- 4. Company image
The image of your company is important – this is about who you are and what you want to represent. This is how your customers will see you. So think about how the interior and exterior of the store look? Does your logo work well both on and offline? Don’t forget your staff – are you planning to put a dress code in place or do you want them to wear a branded uniform? Or, as with us, do you believe individuality is important and do your customers relate better to the more informal approach?
- 5. Customer service
Good customer service is key for any business. If you keep your customer happy they’ll come back and buy from you again, and recommend you to their friends.
If you do have a problem, sort it out fast. Do not bury your head in the sand and hope that it will go away, it won’t. And if a mistake is made by you, then admit it, apologise and address it instantly.
Customer service is very high on our priorities. We run training sessions on customer service and work with our team to make sure they deliver on this. We do also send secret shoppers in. This is a great technique for really seeing how staff perform when we’re not around. All our secret shoppers have given us excellent feedback.
- 6. Stock
One of the worst things that can happen for any business is running out of stock. We currently import from China so need to order well in advance to allow time for the product to be manufactured and then shipped over. Key is to be as accurate as you can in your forecast so you have the stock available.
- 7. Promoting your business
Promoting your business to the local community is important in helping you get off the ground. Talk to your local paper about any opportunities. If you hold an official opening or any special event, tell them about it. If they can’t come down, take some photos and send them in to your area correspondent. Don’t forget any local magazines and newsletters and your local radio stations.
Word of mouth is always great for building a business, so encourage and incentivise customers to tell their friends about you. And you could follow the lead of some big players on the high street and run a loyalty scheme, which is something we already do.
- 8. Keep costs down but don’t cut corners
This is all about investing in the right thing at the right time. Investing in our product and staff are the two most important things for us. Get these right and you have solid foundation for a viable business.
Other investments, like a flagship HQ, can be deemed as unnecessary. Up until a few years ago we were working from the kitchen table with stock stored in port-a-cabins. We did outgrow the space, but instead of ploughing money into expensive office and storage accommodation, we now rent an ex-World War II ammunition bunker which costs very little.
- 9. Look at how you use your store
Primarily your store is there to sell product, but what else could you be doing to get people through the door? Since we opened our stores, we’ve found running an event of some kind in store works well. Weekends are a great time to do this as there are more people about. We’ve held tasting sessions where people can try different flavours of e-cigarettes.
- 10. Don’t forget about the online space
Make sure you still devote time to your online space – this is just as important and gives you the chance to reach a much wider audience. Keep up with your blogging and maintain your presence on Facebook and Twitter – all essential for making an online business a success.
Look too at how you use this space to help make your new store a success. Engage with potential customers through social media, send them offers they can redeem in store and details on promotions. The online and offline space work very well together.
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