What were you up to before you came up with Love Those Shoes?
I was an interior designer – starting with a High Street shop and building the business into a studio-led interior design business with contracts to furnish showhomes and hotels nationwide.
What was the thinking behind the online shop?
I started with a fashion business. My curiosity and interest was piqued, way back in 1997 when the internet was still a baby, and I started a fashion business because I had workrooms and machinists who made my soft furnishings.
One of my machinists had been a tailor before joining the company and it seemed like a good idea at the time to create a website and sell clothes we designed.
Why did you choose shoes and why health benefits?
The shoes were an accident! While looking for a new pair of trainers, I came across a small item in a magazine about a revolutionary new trainer that corrected posture and alleviated backache.
I immediately wondered whether there was something in this innovative health and wellness idea and whether I could sell these to other people like me. This was 2003, when there were no shoe stores on the internet due to people being put off by the inability to try before you buy.
But I was undeterred as I knew we were bringing something you can’t buy anywhere else and what’s the secret of good business?… exclusivity. A deal was struck and we built a new website to accommodate our new technology trainers.
I ran this alongside the interior design business and the online fashion business before I realised that splitting myself in three was somewhat challenging !
What’s tough about starting out?
Getting customers. Our first fashion shop was difficult because there were no sophisticated search engines in the 1990′s and we relied on forums, newsgroups and word of mouth. Obviously it was a massive learning curve to build the site, which we designed and built ourselves, and to teach ourselves how to present the content.
At this time, I was running the internet business alongside my interior design business so probably the hardest part of all was how to stretch a 24 hour day.
Were sales hard to come by?
Very. Without search engines, banner ads or links on google – it was about posting on the then newsgroups (like forums), putting links on other people’s sites and building viral marketing by putting interesting or humorous features on the site so that we became a community.
We worked on getting repeat customers, who we hoped would then tell their friends. Our products were unique and exclusive, so there was no competition, there weren’t many people on the internet anyway.
Once we opened Love Those Shoes in 2003, there were more search engines and because we were offering something entirely new that actually enhanced your wellbeing, it was a totally innovative idea. We got a feature in the Sunday Times Style Magazine some four months after we opened Love Those Shoes, and this was a gift from heaven.
How to light a fire beneath the business?
We ran competitions, we wrote interesting and humorous features for the site, we sent newsletters, we ran special offers and vouchers and we learned how to post on search engines and blogs.
What software did you use?
We designed and built our own websites. In the 1990′s there was no e-commerce and we discovered and had to use an American shopping cart that only transacted in US Dollars. I recall that Barclays were the first to create an online e-commerce system which we were then able to install and use.
We built our own back office system too. We did look at off-the-shelf sofware, but it didn’t deal with the various size and colour variations for the products we sold – it was very general.
Our payment systems are now more sophisticated with various credit cards via Datacash and Streamline, and Paypal. We have our own warehouse and do our own shipping.
Have you always used these and if not what made you swap?
We’ve swapped around quite a bit based on better technology being developed and better prices.
Over time, new technologies were developed that made sites speedier so we would make use of new programme coding to move the first part of the site then the rest using these new programme codes. Likewise with databases which became more sophisticated.
Competition meant that the credit card providers and payment fulfilment companies were open to negotiation, and they also introduced new, simpler methods. As fraud grew on the net, security measures were put into place so we moved into providers who did it best.
The only thing we didn’t move into was an outsourced logistics provider, i.e.. someone to store and ship our orders. Having awful experiences from the first one we tried, we always do that ourselves as it’s too important, and if it goes wrong it creates havoc.
Everything moves so rapidly on the internet, that new technology is out of date almost as soon as it’s launched. It’s important to keep the website not only looking topical, but also being fast and easy to navigate and move through the shopping basket.
Do you have plans for the future?
We are constantly growing the business by growing the product range with more variety, new technologies, and growing our home-based customers. We have recently opened French and German sites, with plans for Spanish and Italian ones to follow.
If you could have done anything differently what would it be?
On the basis that we learn from our mistakes, I would say that everything we have done so far was, to a degree, a mistake which we then corrected. We made the site and system over-complicated at times before we learned that on the internet, simple is best. The twitter and facebook generation want it short and sweet!
What’s your best sales tip for other business owners?
Keep your product unique if you can, if not, at least present it better than the others. Customer service is key to ensuring that customers come back, and more important on the internet than a high street shop as customer contact can be more challenging.
Give the customer multiple ways to buy and multiple ways to get in touch with you.