I often recall stories of my earliest experiences of running a business online. Back in 2001 Broadband didn’t exist we were still in age of the dial-up modem connection, it used to take 30-40 seconds to establish the connection with the famous beeps and buzzes that would accompany it. Once connected you might get 50/60 KB of connectivity and you’d be lucky if it didn’t drop out every 10 mins! Of course, set against the 100MB fibre broadband speeds of today this seems unthinkable but at the time, the internet was the new frontier, everything at the tips of your fingertips…. It was often worth the wait in a new era of discovery.
My business was selling shoes online, not just any old shoes but branded shoes. Dr Martens were our main Brand at the time and probably accounted for 80% of the sales. The website was awful, poor graphics, poor content and about 20 clicks to make a sale but again it was a time when no one knew any better, so if the product was strong enough you wouldn’t mind going through all the pain.
You Can’t Sell Shoes Online
The earliest challenge for us was to find more Brands and more products to expand our potential customer reach, so we hit the road. All the trade shows we could find, we set up meetings after meetings week after week, selling the online dream to as many Brands as possible with the same patter which I can still repeat in my sleep. It was going through this mission where I learnt one of the lessons that has stayed with me ever since.
Time and again we were told by sales reps that “You can’t sell shoes online” – because surely this was a product people had to try on and feel? Well we were selling shoes online and lots of them. Why was it so difficult to convince people? To give it more context, it was only a couple of years after the Boo.com crash and people were naturally wary, but they failed because they spent too much money too quickly not because the idea was bad.
The key is you need to put subjectivity to one side, the online world has one major advantage, statistics and lots of them, everything is tracked.
You can always spot someone who doesn’t quite get digital, they’ll always default to a position of personal opinion and anecdotes in order to justify a particular point of view. Being successful online is about understanding the data, slicing and dicing it until you can piece together the narrative. There’s almost too much data, much of it real-time as well and if you’re in to that type of thing it’s a dream because you can spend hours upon hours getting lost in it. Overtime of course you get better at cutting through it and spotting the real trends that matter.
It was clear to me reviewing the search data, that you could sell shoes online. Why? Because people were searching for it plain and simple…. “Dr Martens, Dr Martens UK, Buy Dr Martens, Latest Dr Martens” These were calls to action with an intent to buy, people in the moment looking to satisfy an urge and if we could lead them to the right product we’d have a good chance of making the sale.
15 years or so on, the rest is history as they say. The online fashion world is now a multi-billion, global industry and now an entire generation brought up in the digital world now buys online as their channel of choice, but it’s often stuck with me that phrase I heard over and over again from those that didn’t quite understand the potential of ecommerce, “You can’t sell shoes online”.
It’s All About the Data
The main lesson I think that it taught me was that there is a place for digital in every business, no matter how unattractive the proposition is or how unlikely you think it is this is how you’ll connect with your customers, it is highly likely that digital will be able to play a part for you.
A few weeks ago I had to change the slicer on a ninja-bullet. It had worn out and wasn’t quite doing its job any more. Now in times gone by this would have surely resulted in the equipment being retired to the back of the cupboard and a whole new replacement being bought as a Christmas present or something but not so in the digital age. I went online to see if I could find a spare part and hey presto within a couple of clicks (from a massive, well-known marketplace!) a replacement slicer had been ordered. But the trouble didn’t end there as I then needed to work out how to actually replace the part, it wasn’t immediately obvious…
Well I got thinking that if this had happened to me, I bet it’s happened to others, so I googled ‘how to replace ninja-bullet slicer’ and sure enough within another 2 clicks I was watching a You Tube tutorial on to do the exact repair.
The point struck me again, no matter how niche or nuanced your issue, the sheer size of the data and content online now means there is someone out there you can connect with, the potential is almost limitless. The data has simply got bigger, much bigger and broader and more sophisticated. By spending the time analysing this data, in particular what are people searching for and through what channels we can understand how it can impact your business and then tailor a campaign strategy to monetise it.
To be honest it’s not a tough battle anymore to convince people, particularly entrepreneurs, that digital has an application in your business but it is a challenge to correctly identify the scale of the opportunity, to forecast and plan for it so that each business fully maximises the potential.
If you’ve dismissed digital as part of your business or feel like it’s not contributed, take the time to take another look, spend some time with your data and web analytics and see if you can unlock your narrative to digital success.
Chris Thomas, CEO & Founder Apex Ecommerce
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