The Shopkeeper Diaries: A Few Tips on Online Retailing

We launched our fledgling online retail business nearly six months ago, and our learning curve has not been dissimilar to the north edge of the Eiger since then. Like all new businesses, we have had to learn new skills and talents as we were going along – it’s like being the new kids at school, and relying on the kindness of strangers to show us the system.

Before the launch, we spent about 18 months researching the market and potential British suppliers, visiting fairs and shops, and creating the design and look of our shop. My husband John-Paul focuses on all matters relating to accounts and contracts whereas I focus on buying, selling, marketing and running the shop website and journal. We are also due to launch our pop-up shop at the end of this month, and we will be running a course on helping others to create their own online shop, blog and social media platform.

So, what have we learned so far? Too much to include in a single blog post – so much that I have filled eight large Moleskine notebooks on contacts, recommendations, prices, artisans, farm shops, crafts people, numbers, mistakes, plans and ideas. I am a constant jotter – I plot and plan for Europe.

If I could turn back the hands of time, and knew then what I know now, what advice would I give to myself at the start? What are the important points? How can I help anybody else coming down this track behind me?

Well, here are just a few useful tips for that intrepid fellow traveller.

The experienced e-commerce website designer is king

In the digital retailing world the design of the website is vital. Scour the internet and ask around for the best e-commerce website designer you can find {rare as hen’s teeth} – the one who has already created a considerable, contemporary, clean e-commerce website design body of work in your sector, and who has produced work to a standard that matches where you want your brand to go. Designers that have created blogs are not the same thing – e-commerce is much more challenging. Quality control, attention to detail, a focus on excellence, perfectionism in delivery, meeting budgets, a desire to help you succeed – all those elements are really important. If you pick the wrong team, it takes ages and a great deal of money and angst to restart.

Plotting and planning on paper

Create the retail website you want on paper first. I sat down with a large A4 sketch pad and plotted the design, structure, font, photography, layout, colours, pages, links to the online journal, links to social media, cart, payment gateway etc, etc. Make sure you can show and articulate exactly how you want your retail website to look and how your customer navigates his way around the site. Very few website builders are trained designers – some are just code writers with big estimates. You will need to lead the design process, so preparation is key. Ask lots of questions in the planning process and make sure the key points about your brand remain the key points.

Photography is vital

If you can afford a good, professional photographer to create a lookbook for your website and some product photographs, then it will be the wisest investment you will make. We live in a very visual world, and one picture can speak a thousand words. If that is beyond your means then….

Making visuals neat, clean and useful

For our everyday photoshots I purchased a very standard white infinity roll. I am not at all an experienced photographer, but I find that with a clean, neat, white background, you can showcase most products in a fairly functional manner. You are not entering the Royal Photographic Society’s annual award. You just want to sell products in an efficient manner. Light, bright, natural daylight photography is best.


I am the most organised person I know, and even I underestimated just how super-organised you need to be in order to launch an e-commerce website. You will need to be good at sourcing, buying, communication, marketing, accounts, packaging, logistics, design, PR….the list is endless. I write out timetables, schedules, files and to-do-lists for every single day, in order to keep up with all the different activities. There are no days off, sadly, when you are self-employed. Just lots and lots of to-do lists. Kiss your social life and holidays goodbye.

Post and packaging

The single biggest challenge is distribution – how are you going to get your parcels to your customers, safely and consistently? The first few months after launch are always the worst. Invest in the best packaging you can afford. Make sure you package everything as carefully as you can, because delivery men are not careful – they deliver hundreds of parcels every day and your business is not their priority. Deal with complaints and breakages really quickly – 100% customer satisfaction is our goal – so you cannot leave any disaster e-mails unanswered.

The power of social media

It cannot be overestimated how important social media is to get your products seen by the right consumers – whatever your brand characteristics, you have to seek out the sort of people who are most likely to buy your products – and their friends and family. Yes, there is a great deal of distracting noise, which needs to be avoided. Twitter and Facebook have been invaluable for our business, because so many food-homeware-gardening aficionados inhabit that world. Virtually all our suppliers and customers have found us through these media. And quite a number have found us through the online journal.

Writing a blog – online journal

Every week I write a blog post for the journal, to keep our readers updated with news, views, events, artisans, cookbook reviews and recipes. These posts are important in keeping content fresh, keeping visitors coming back to the website and creating a community of likeminded people who care about our work as much as we care about it. Short, sharp, interesting blog posts with a few light, bright photographs that showcase what you are making-doing-creating keeps your readers coming back, and eventually your readers might become customers.

Controlling costs

There are so many snake oil merchants in business, who try to sell you products you don’t need, services you probably don’t want and ideas that will never work out. When you start a new business, unless you have a great deal of previous experience in the sector already, you will be at your most vulnerable and therefore likely to fall into all manner of unforeseen traps. Think carefully and walk slowly. Make do and mend. Recycle, reuse and relove is our motto. We found most of what we needed for our stockroom, for example, second hand, from other businesses that were retiring or ceased to trade. My Mamma, an excellent sewer and knitter, has hand made all our linen and cotton shopping bags, as well as some blankets, tablecloths, napkins and tea towels. No bling, no fuss, just craft.

Keep the main thing the main thing

To quote Stephen Covey, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. What was the “Unique Selling Proposition” you thought of when you launched your online business? What sets you apart from all the other online retailers? Is it that you only sell Made In Britain goods, or you only sell products that are created by young designers, or you only sell the products from your specific region? Whatever your niche or “main thing” remain true to your values and identity. Because once you start  being a copycat it really shows.

Eyes, down, head up

When you launch an online business it is so easy to become distracted and sidetracked by Google Analytics, by SEO management, by social media statistics, by the number of subscribers to your Newsletter mail-out, by looking at the competition to see how many followers-likes they have and by endless short-term paths that lead to nowhere. Compare not. Fret not. Focus on the day-to-day management of your business and produce good work. The rest will come.

Brick and mortar shop

It may seem really strange, in an era when the Internet is in every home and everybody is consumed by digital engagement, but many people still will not shop online. Many newspaper and magazine editors will not feature you unless you have a real shop, a story, a place. There are even some artisan producers who refuse to supply online shops. Some products lend themselves to digital sales whereas others do not. Think very carefully about what you sell and how it lends itself to this medium – will your customers need to taste, touch, feel or smell the product before they invest in it? The Foodie Bugle Shop, and all we are trying to achieve, definitely needs a real dimension – a real grocery-provisions-supplies space to call our own. The two types of retail platforms need to go hand-in-hand.

And that is the next giant leap. More lessons to be learned. More challenges to be overcome. And that is the fun and attraction of running your own business – the constant learning, aspiration and education. As I learn, I share.

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