With traditional retail channels closed to many small businesses, taking business online has been their only source of revenue. Photograph: visualspace/Getty Images
Starting a business and planning for its future once involved bricks and mortar, shelves, tills and customers walking through your door. Not so today. Even before the coronavirus lockdown limited people’s trips to retailers in the flesh, online shopping was flying high. According to the Global Ecommerce Market Ranking 2019, the UK has the world’s fourth largest e-commerce market in revenue terms, and the third highest percentage of online shoppers, at almost 80%. And it’s set to continue. Research by the analysts Retail Economics last year found that 53% of retail sales were expected to be online by 2028. In the wake of lockdown, it seems likely this trend will only accelerate.
Given the way that we shop is changing, it has never been more important for retailers to get online. In a survey for the website builder GoDaddy, a fifth of micro businesses said they had gone online for the first time during lockdown and nearly half that their use of digital and social media tools had increased.
For some, e-commerce has always been part of the plan. The artisan hot chocolate company Knoops opened its first store in Rye, East Sussex, in 2013, and went on to open a London store in February this year, with more planned. But head of marketing Anna Chapman says that having an online presence was always a key part of the company’s strategy. “Chocolate has a broad appeal, and we wanted to be able to reach people in their homes, especially those who didn’t live near our stores,” she says.
The company’s website centres around its hot chocolate maker, the Knoopifier, with owners getting access to online subscriptions for pouches of “Knoopifier” chocolate buttons delivered to their home. The website has always been an important part of the company’s strategy, but Chapman says that lockdown emphasised this further.
“While our doors were closed, it was obviously the only way we could take any revenue at all, and we were able to focus our efforts entirely on our website and social media channels,” she says. “This importance will remain – the majority of retailers now accept that an omnichannel approach is vital. Our current situation has been an extremely stark reminder of its importance.”
For other SMEs, while a website may have been part of their business, using it to sell is a recent addition. Rob Wilson, “chief toaster” at Toast Ale, a craft beer brewer that uses bread which would otherwise be wasted, says that despite having an online presence, it wasn’t really part of the business’s strategy.
“We very much focused on building our brand online but our routes to market were bars, pubs, restaurants and retail – 70% of our business was on-trade, about 30% was in conventional retail environments, and a fraction of a percent was online,” he says.
But when those sales channels were cut off during lockdown, Toast Ale, which donates its profits to sustainability charities, was forced to shift its sales online. “We started to rebuild our website and have far more focus on a more functional online shop. It has massively transformed our business and helped us survive – it’s become a huge opportunity to reach a whole new audience. We just hadn’t thought about it as a sales channel and now we’ve suddenly realised its potential.”
Similarly, Chris Fryer, founder of the vegan pie business Magpye, hadn’t really explored e-commerce, instead selling pies from his converted horse box at events and supplying local pubs in the north of England. “We had a full calendar of events booked. We were supplying pubs with pies and had just expanded, dropping off to four or five pubs twice a week. Then our income stopped – it was a cliff-edge.”
Like Wilson at Toast Ale, Fryer realised quickly that he would have to shift to e-commerce and has been similarly amazed by the effect it has had.
“At the moment we’re just doing local deliveries across the north east but we’re looking into expanding. Our plan potentially is to sell our horsebox and become a web-based pie shop,” he says. Online tools – such as those offered by GoDaddy – make it easy to create a web store and process orders. Photograph: svetikd/Getty Images
When it comes to setting up an e-commerce site, there is an increasingly wide range of tools available to business owners from a range of sources. They include web hosting companies such as GoDaddy, which has created Open We Stand – a portal of resources for small businesses during lockdown. Fryer says that while he has some experience building websites, it was quicker and easier to turn to readymade tools with GoDaddy.
“I had the domain registered with GoDaddy but had done nothing with it. Once it became clear we would have to move online I started looking into it. I could have gone down the route of coding it from scratch but it would have taken a week or two, especially things like payment options. With the GoDaddy tools it took half a day, then I spent a day or two testing and it was ready to go. Although we didn’t use the option, I knew GoDaddy would build the site for you for free if you needed,” he says.
“They do a free three-month trial, so there’s really nothing to lose by having a go. The admin side, monitoring it, doing the orders is all quite simple, so even if you’ve got no skills whatsoever I don’t think many people would struggle with it.”
At Toast Ale, the switch was led by COO Louisa Ziane, who has experience of managing websites. Wilson is adamant that the work has paid off, with e-commerce proving an “amazing opportunity”, not just now but, he believes, in the future. “I would say that at current rates we’re looking at probably half a million pounds of revenue coming from our online shop. Last year as a business we took around £1m in total, so that shows that it is very quickly becoming a significant part of our business.”
GoDaddy launched the #OpenWeStand initiative offering a number of free tools, widgets, resources and blogposts at OpenWeStand.org to help small businesses keep their digital doors open while their physical doors are closed. Over 50 companies have joined the cause, including Slack, Salesforce, PayPal, and more.
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