Dan Matthews talks to Liz Oram, co-founder of Love-Local Shop, a new eCommerce website and winner of the Successful Liquidshop E-Commerce Award from SiteMakers in 2011.
What were you both up to prior to Love-Local Shop?
I worked as a partnership manager for Peninsula Enterprise that ran the Business Link (which was the government business support contract) to provide business advice and support for small and medium size enterprises in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. We had over 40,000 businesses on our database.
Allison had a very similar job from the ‘other side of the fence’ and would liaise on economic requirements and business events for her public sector area. We had both known each other through the partnership channels and matching businesses with the resources available to provide business support and growth.
Why start an eCommerce Business?
In my final year before Business Link closed (it’s still available online www.businesslink.gov.uk), Allison and I met up and the idea was discussed concerning the fantastic businesses that are in the South West but not knowing exactly what was available and where to find them.
We felt there was a real gap for a stylish online shop bringing together ‘products’ from Devon and Somerset (and other counties have come on board since) so that customers could buy instantly and find a wide range of locally produced goods, for example – homeware to gifts, food and drink to well-being and items for him and her.
That resulted in the website: love-local.com being launched. It allowed lesser-known artisan makers, producers and designers to use one strong platform to showcase their products, alongside larger producers who believed in the brand ‘local’ and ‘Devon/Somerset’ and wanted to proudly associate themselves with the area.
Most importantly it allowed local producers to play their part in the growth of internet shopping and take advantage of changing customer buying patterns.
Why did you both choose local products only?
Prior to launching (and winning the award!) we spent a year researching our belief that there was a market for buying local. We found that 80%+ people shopped online, yet only 30% brought locally online but 80% would buy locally online if the shopping experience was easy and the online shop stylish and interesting.
What has been really interesting is that the range, style and quality of products made locally is even more amazing then even we had imagined and the portfolio of goods on love-local.com continues to build on a daily basis. In just six months, we have over 1200 products uploaded for customers to choose from.
Valuing where we live and sustainability are also important to us – and certainly for many of our suppliers. With that in mind, we have products from both the Devon and Somerset Wildlife Trusts such as ‘adopting an otter’ or ‘ buying a year’s gift membership’ as our way of embracing where we live – and acknowledging that we aren’t the experts in our environment but we’ll work with others who are and bring their stories to market!
Working with suppliers in the South West provides a good sustainable background to enabling customers to make a more ethical choice and our suppliers are passionate about their environment and how they live and work within it. We are keen to celebrate this through the Love-Local site and continue to work with our suppliers to find best practice on things like packaging and delivery.
What was the hardest thing about starting a shop online?
The basic combination of building a stylish website alongside great functionality needed to do the job is essential and we were lucky to win the national Liquidshop Award so had a year of website support and development at our fingertips.
We had the luxury of picking up the phone and getting support without the financial worries that go with any new start-up, especially in difficult economic conditions. It certainly allowed us space to breath and concentrate on brand awareness and finding new suppliers to populate the site – ensuring it was a great place to visit and shop!
How hard was it to get the business moving?
Winning the award was a great start and we ‘cheekily’ wrote to Mr and Mrs Cameron to drop off a goody bag to No. 10 in our first 24 hours of trading – such is our passion for local products. We were given permission, much to the surprise and delight of the organising officials! Both the award and No. 10 gave us some great PR and a recognition that we meant business!
With both Allison and my networking and connections within the South West it was fairly easy to get things going and Allison is a mean hand at twitter, which soon resulted in a surge of visitors to love-local.com and an interest from new suppliers. Such was the interest from suppliers, that we soon included Wiltshire products to our website and have just started uploading for Cornwall and Dorset.
Creative thinking is a must – from piggy-backing more established brands to dropping off goody bags to those in the spotlight and who have a passion for British-made producers. Imagine our delight when a goody bag to Mary Portas resulted in a positive acknowledgement of our website and a direct approach to one of our suppliers to work with Mary further.
The hardest part is driving up the sales and they are slowly growing – and this is as much about the tough retail market as about love-local.com having the credibility of being an established website. It takes time and sheer determination – both of which Allison and I have (but we often wish we had more hours in the day!).
Did you use social media and did it help?
Social media has been the lifeblood of love-local.com – it’s instant, it’s free (well, apart from your time!), it’s creative and it can reach a wide market.
What is really useful is picking up ‘snippets’ of great information or passing comments that can result in real business or a new supplier coming online. It can open doors and it puts you ‘out-there’, where others will willing share your comments or news and suddenly your exposure grows overnight.
Certainly it has to be managed and one has to be aware of negative comments hitting the social media channels so you have to be ready to deal with any style of approach coming your way. However, it gives the impression of being an open and dynamic company, interested in others and keen to engage.
If you do use social media, you need to be mindful of tapping into it regularly with something worthwhile to say; there’s advocacy attached or it shares your expertise and knowledge.
What software did you opt for?
We were fortunate to have the Liquidshop platform as part of the Award which allows one-year free usage and development. As a website, involving many different sellers, it was important that it was easy to use and that there was no limit on the amount of sellers that could be housed on the site.
We won the Successful Liquidship E-commerce Award on 1 September and launched on 15 October in London, in front of 400 e-commerce experts. We had only 6 weeks to upload and understand the system (and even to find suppliers) – but we hit the launch button with over 450 products live on the site and a great start to the business. The system was really easy to learn and remember!
It also provides us with the opportunity to view how customers search within the site and how they find the site –and this has proved invaluable for SEO purposes. We also have the functionality for customers’ orders to be automatically sent to our suppliers, making it efficient and effective.
Have you always used these?
The website has only been live since October 2011 and we use the software as a result of being the competition winners. However, we did review whether it was the right software before we entered the competition so that we could hit the ground running and get on with running and developing a new internet business.
What plans do you have to grow the business in the future?
We have always planned to cover the South West counties on our site so there is a wide choice of products made from right across the South West. The development of Dorset and Cornwall now coming online has provided us with great areas to develop and will certainly enhance the website offering.
At the same time, there are still outstanding products that could be on the site from our existing counties and we are constantly reviewing the gaps but, at the same time, mindful of not over-developing each section with an overload of similar products. We are now comfortable that the site is starting to take shape and becoming the shopping experience we want it to be.
We have an exciting portfolio of new categories coming online too so it is constantly evolving and we are also thinking outside-the-box to give customers real added value and fun being on love-local.com!
If you could have done anything differently what would it be?
As there are two of us in the business, we started by duplicating effort at the beginning so we have split our functions to ensure that there isn’t overlap and more focus and drive on our individual tasks. It’s only when working within the business that systems and processes start to evolve and it’s always useful to embed the right process as early as possible so everyone has a consistent approach and can just ‘get on with the job’.
What’s your best sales tip for other business owners?
Watch what’s happening around you…trends/styles/likes. For example – we managed to get to No. 10 because a) I was a single mum and Allison a busy mum of 4 b) we had both been made redundant in 2011 c) we had started a new business which the government was keen to encourage and, finally, d) we were local or ‘big society’. Ticked the boxes; see what the value is to you (and them) and get some PR out of it!
Partner other companies: we were delighted to work with Dartington Crystal, Naturalmat, Mary Davis Knitwear and Riverford Organics - and that gave us credibility as a new company and enabled up to reach their client base.
Social media, PR and networking are key tools to use: if your company is all about other companies and producers, you have to be the best ambassadors for your suppliers and work, work, work to get the message out there and heard.
Target the areas you believe will reap the most sales and grown your business: always understand your markets and define your offering accordingly.
The Liquid shop 2012 competition is now open. To find out more visit the Sitemakers website