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Setting up an online retail store

'You have to think of different ways to market yourself, and that is the way we approached our move to an online business.'
Christine Metcalfe, The Ark

Top tips

  • Make your website engaging and exciting, but still simple and easy to navigate
  • Retain the personal touches and good customer service
  • Make payment options secure, convenient and user-friendly
  • Encourage return visits by updating your customers with new products and promotions

The business

The Ark had its origins in a children's wear company called OzArk, established by Jenny Layton and Christine Metcalfe. They first promoted OzArk through party plans and then opened their first store in Maling Road, Canterbury.

Jenny and Christine soon branched out into women's wear, under the label The Ark. The Ark offers quality clothing designed and made in Australia, targeted at women 35 and over.

Using an online store to grow a small business

Jenny and Christine always understood the importance of continually finding new ways to grow the business and promote the brand. 'We've found in our business we need to keep re-inventing ourselves,' Christine says.

With three successful bricks and mortar stores under their belts, Jenny and Christine decided to establish an online store. 'You have to think of different ways to market yourself, and that is the way we approached our move to an online business,' Christine says.

When setting up the online store they stayed clearly focused on the value proposition for their customers. 'For the Ark, the online business is all about customer convenience,' she says. 'Customers who buy online from us are confident. They do not feel the need to try on the clothes before they buy them.'

Jenny and Christine work hard to ensure the online business delivers the same high level of customer satisfaction as the bricks and mortars stores. To encourage people to try online shopping, they offer a 100% refund on exchanges, even if the customer just changes her mind. They also add in little touches that make customers feel special, such as beautifully wrapped pieces of clothing and a gift with orders.

To give online shoppers a sense of exclusivity and draw in regulars, they have created a new clothes range, 'Palette Melbourne', which is only available through their website.

Online sales help double turnover without double the effort

After two years online, The Ark is growing strongly. Turnover doubled in the last 12 months. The online business has added value to the business as a whole, since it is cheap and effective to run.

Jenny and Christine have employed an Online Store Marketing Manager, and plan to further develop the online business. They already use Facebook and have a blog, 'The Ark Unstitched'. Planned initiatives include embedding the blog into the website; adding video and interactive material; and updating the website to a more exciting format. They also intend to hire more staff who can help to 'personalise and individualise' the service that is provided.

As Christine points out, 'Some people just prefer to shop online.'

Moving online also helped the business keep pace with retail trends. Increasingly, customers expect online shopping to be offered as an option. 'It was a conscious decision to open the online store as a way of keeping up with what was going on in today's society,' Christine says.

The advice – making the most of your online store

Based on their experience, Jenny and Christine suggest:

  • being clear about the purpose of your website. If online shopping is all about convenience, make sure you make it convenient. Offer plenty of information about sizing, and set payment options and exchange policies that will encourage less confident online shoppers to give it a go
  • making your website inviting. Work with a web designer to make it engaging, exciting, and faithful to your brand.
  • updating the content so people will want to return to your website often
  • retaining a high level of customer service. Online customers should receive the same personalised service as those who visit your store. Consider how you can build your relationship with online customers through email – but don't harass them.
  • making payment convenient and user-friendly. It's important for a customer to use a payment method they feel comfortable and safe with. 'The transaction should be user-friendly and simple for the customers.'
  • updating your stock regulary and let people know about new ranges and promotional deals through emails. This will keep the visitors returning and the orders flowing.

Develop a digital strategy

The result

The Ark has had a doubled its sales turnover in the last 12 months. The online business is extending customer reach and contributing value to the business as a whole, without the high costs of a retail store.

'You have to think of different ways to market yourself, and that is the way we approached our move to an online business.'