In My View by Eric Musgrave: Online Independence

Eric Musgrave
Eric Musgrave

Fourteen months of lockdown has caused lots of us rethink lots of things. One of my biggest changes has been in my opinion of independent fashion retailers selling online.

For this transformation, I must thank my friend Andrew Livingston and his family, who run the G Livingston menswear business in Castle Douglas, a market town in Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland.

Before COVID-19 derailed our normal existence my view was that, in most cases, independent fashion shops should not spend a lot of time, money and effort in building a transactional website.

My reasoning was that almost all indies sell brands that are available in many other places, usually including the brands’ own shops and websites. So, I argued, an indie is not offering anything special online and would have difficulty getting noticed without spending a lot on search engine optimisation (SEO) and the likes of Google Ads.

Retailers who lease their premises have long complained they are often “only working for the landlord”. In recent years I have heard too many complaints from even online-only specialists that they are “only working for Google’s benefit”.

Everyone must now be aware going online is not a low-cost route to riches. Nor is it just like adding a couple of new lines to the product mix in a shop. To me, going online seriously should be viewed as starting a separate business to a bricks-and-mortar concern.

Although I knew of some indie successes, I felt this was often all too much effort for (potentially) too little return. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the problem of returns on online sales…

Back in September 2020 Andrew, who runs the business with his wife Sue and their son Lewis, sent me an email, part of which said: “The shock of zero sales during lockdown made us rethink our business model. We are based in a small town with gradually reducing footfall and the long-term survival of our business depends on our ability to adapt. We spent lockdown creating a sales website (our third attempt) to try and be more relevant to the way the trade is moving.”

He initially asked me to help him out by rewriting the About Us history section of the site, something that was right up my street. I couldn’t resist, however, urging him not to put a lot of effort into going transactional.

Just make the site a really good digital shop window, I said. Happily, he, Sue and Lewis had already got the site running and they ignored my expert advice.

Reorganising the history timeline of the business was interesting and fascinating for me. Andrew’s great-grandfather George Livingston, a bespoke tailor, opened for business in Castle Douglas in 1896. George’s son, also an Andrew, added ready-to-wear clothes in the 1920s, but the bespoke tradition continues to this day, as the contemporary Andrew is one of the best bespoke tailors in the UK (although he is far too modest to say this himself).

In 1954 his father, also a George, won a prestigious annual award from The Tailor and Cutter, beating off competition from top tailors across the country, prompting a lovely headline in the Scottish Daily Herald: “Ach Awa’ Savile Row”.

The modern business comprises two adjacent freehold premises in Castle Douglas’ main street, one dealing with classical menswear, countrywear and the bespoke trade, the other handling more casualwear. The brand mix is solidly mainstream, with the likes of Barbour, Magee, Gurteen on the classic side and Eterna, Fynch Hatton and Meyer on the casualwear side.

My brief soon expanded to generally tidying up the website, suggesting simplifications, improving the product descriptions across around 50 brands, removing inconsistencies and typographical errors, but the heavy lifting of developing the site and uploading what is now something like 7,000 product lines was down to Lewis, assisted by Sue.

With going transactional under way, I stressed to the Livingston family that the site should be as personable as possible, not just a bland series of product shots. I believe very fervently that any independent retailer’s website ought to reflect the ethos of the business and so it ought to feature the owners, certainly the shop itself and maybe their staff too.

Although I know online sales can come from anywhere – a surprising number of orders have come into Castle Douglas from Europe – I still believe even a transactional website needs to attract local people (or visitors) to the shop itself. Surely getting people through the door is when an indie can excel at service and displaying their authority as experts?

I am amazed how many indie websites, transactional or not, do not show anything apart from product shots. On too many, it surprises me, it takes quite a bit of hunting to find out even the address of the shop.

Very reluctantly, Andrew, Sue and Lewis agreed to my entreaties that I should photograph them in the two shops, wearing appropriate clothes for each. These photos alternate when you visit the site. The Homepage also carries a brief couple of paragraphs summing up the G Livingston story, so everyone landing on the site gets a flavour of the business.

Andrew linked the shop’s history timeline to a Castle Douglas Facebook group, which had a very positive effect in engaging locals, a handy reminder not to forget your neighbours even if you aspire to chase worldwide sales.

The easy-to-use website has proved popular with existing customers who do a bit of looking before coming in to buy. Some local customers have even telephoned the shop to put in an order as they do not trust shopping online. It’s all part of the Livingston service.

A year on, G Livingston has created a new revenue stream that has gone some way to compensate for the total loss of sales during lockdown. It also helps underpin what Andrew expects to be a very slow return to normal footfall.

Impressively, it’s been a self-created success with the self-taught Lewis learning about online over the past 18 months.

The company’s first venture online was about 10 years ago when Andrew used an outside web designer to create an online presence. A major problem back then was the lack of an integrated stock system, so things displayed on the site had sometimes sold out in the shop. The transactional element was soon dropped.

Version two of the site was tried a few years later when Lewis joined the family business. In the spare time he had working in the shop he put together a simple site using the Wix platform, but he admits it was a half-hearted attempt that lacked credibility because of the relatively small selection online.

The enforced lockdown gave him the time and of course the incentive to try again, this time with a Shopify option that permits integrated stock control across the shops and the site.

“Without the lockdown, we wouldn’t have got round to doing it,” Andrew admits. “Having decided on Shopify, it took Lewis about six weeks until we went live on 6 April 2020.”

More than a year on, the Livingston clan is rightly pleased with what they have achieved. November, December and January proved to be the best months for sales – backed by some modest spending on online promotion. Most of the time Lewis relies on his own SEO skills to get people to the site. So far, none of the so-called specialist marketing agencies that have contacted them have been able to assure them what they will get for spending more money on marketing.

Regarding my insistence that they needed to personalise their site, Lewis acknowledges that having so much about the owners, the premises and the history of the business has given online shoppers reassurance to buy from them.

“I have learned to use a lot of images and to give detailed descriptions of each product,” he says. “That answers a lot of questions but having so much about us makes us trustworthy. A lot of sites have no information who’s behind them. So you have no idea who you are buying from.”

He stresses, however, that taking 10,000 images since he started the site last April, uploading them, writing all the captions and constantly tweaking the site takes a lot of time. He admits he should be doing more social media on Instagram (especially), Facebook (less so) and Pinterest (a new experiment), but there are only so many hours in the day.

The other online bugbear – returns – have been very modest and are usually connected with wrong sizes. In most cases the transaction still goes through when a new size is offered to the customer.

Andrew also has a good response to my complaint that consumers are likely to go to a brand’s site rather than an independent stockists’ site: “People can of course go to Barbour for a Barbour jacket, but with us they can see the William Lockie sweater, the Viyella shirt and the Van Buck tie we have bought to go with the jacket.”

That is joined-up thinking and sensible retailing. I am delighted Andrew, Sue and Lewis have changed my way of looking at things. You can see their efforts for yourself here https://www.glivingston.co.uk/

 

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