Clicks to bricks: taking the business offline

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Not so long ago, companies with a high street presence were finding out how to go online – the internet was uncharted territory, and brought its own complexities.

Today, some organisations are experiencing the opposite challenge – with a successful online business, how do you move offline?

Moving the brand into the real world comes with a series of potential pitfalls to avoid and opportunities that are not to be missed. But they can be summarised under three key areas that are essential to business success both on- and offline: communication, finances and marketing.

The anticipated death of the high street has been over-reported, with both customers and businesses realising that a physical office or store, communicating in person and being able to see and touch products are all important transactional elements, which online-only businesses cannot fully emulate. From a marketing point of view, a physical presence offers legitimacy – even if the customer ends up buying from you online, your shopfront is a competitive differentiator and keeps the brand fresh in customers’ minds. Kiddicare, for example, established itself online then gradually opened eight stores to allow the experiential shopping experience that online-only doesn’t offer.

Unique offerings

Kyleigh Orlebar is Founder of Kyleigh’s Papercuts, a bespoke greetings and artwork business in Wimborne, Dorset. ‘I started by selling on sites like Not on the high street,’ Kyleigh said, ‘and to begin with, the move offline was almost accidental – I needed a larger workshop space, and the new premises I found happened to have a shopfront.’ However, Kyleigh quickly realised that expanding the business offline was the right thing to do. ‘It was a steep learning curve,’ she says. ‘I was familiar with 3D work and branding from being a graphic designer – but to bring it all together in a shop environment was very different.’ You learn via experience, Kyleigh says. ‘I need to create an A board; how do I handle the price list; how do I visually price products. The biggest question was doing the visual merchandising – a shop window display and so on.’ Needing a theme and making the shop attractive to customers, is a very different proposition to an online brand. A useful tip, according to Kyleigh, is to get the right help. ‘I was fortunate; I had a friend who used to do visual merchandising for Monsoon in Oxford Street. She was happy to help me, and after I’d seen what she’d done a couple of times, I was able to take over.’

Today, there are unexpected benefits of creating a physical presence. ‘I get people travelling quite a distance to see me – I never thought that would happen. It increases sales, raises brand awareness and it’s great for me to see my customers in person; I get a better understanding of what they need and want.’ It gives the opportunity to make the business fully bespoke. ‘Someone recently asked, do you have something for a 5th birthday? I didn’t, but I told them I could make it that morning while they were having a coffee. That kind of service gets you talked about and brings more customers in; it wouldn’t have happened when I was online-only.’

Ultimately, taking the business online ‘takes everything up a notch – I became a limited company as a result, so you feel you are no longer a sole trader working from home but running a business, with all the responsibilities and new opportunities that brings.’ What about the future? ‘If I outgrow this current space I would find a shop window with a workspace behind it, rather than a workspace with a shop in front. It may have happened accidentally, but it was the best thing I could do for the business.’

Juggling considerations

For accountants and other professional services, being online-only can be a great way to save costs in the early days and grow the business from a low cash-base, without the risks of rents, overheads and the need for large initial outlays. But once the business is established – or if it’s not growing as quickly as you’d like – going offline offers a way to offer personalised service to set you apart from the competition. Consider the four ‘Ps’ of marketing – Product, Price, Place, Promotion. When going offline, Place becomes particularly important. Do you want a high street store for visibility; or out-of-town for more room? Where do your customers live? Will they drive to you? Do you need to attract a talent pipeline; are there good public transport links? With business rates changing to reflect property values, these issues need careful thought. Decide whether the additional costs of an offline business are commercially sound; make sure the potential increase in business makes it worthwhile.

Top tips – taking your business offline

  • Do it for the right reasons. ‘Don’t rely on footfall,’ says Kyleigh, ‘and don’t expect the same volume of sales as you get online. Think about why you’re moving the brand offline and the additional benefits it will bring you, many of which may be unexpected.’
  • Make sure your business can survive without the shop. Build the offline business in a complementary way to the online brand; don’t neglect your online business because you’re establishing yourself in the real world.
  • Know your niche. ‘It was hard to resist the temptation to buy in new stock, expand it into a gift shop, and look for other things that customers might like. But, that takes me away from why I’m there – the unique offering could get diluted, if I don’t show customers that I’m offering something they can’t get elsewhere,’ Kyleigh says.
  • If the costs are too much of a gamble, consider partnering with an established brand. Alternatively, what about pop-up shops? This enables you to test the water, without long-term commitment.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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