In the first instalment of the Small Business Insight series, we talk to John & Pauline Farrant, owners of the web site greige.co.uk. Greige is an online & retail lifestyle boutique based in Chiswick. They talk about their journey from online to multi-channel and the opportunities and challenges when competing in a highly competitive market place.
A Challenging Retail Scene
The retail sector has been going through some turbulent times; much of the focus has been placed on the causes and issues effecting the High Street up and down the country and the growing proportion of sales that are made online.
Each year new technology and automation develops to assist Ecommerce companies and online retailers and while that can mean exciting new growth opportunities. It can also present challenges for businesses that aren't armed with the knowledge, the personnel, or the cash flow to maximise their results.
Running an Ecommerce Store
One of the key challenges for a business like this is the huge responsibility for keeping on top of prices, descriptions, availability, shipping information and dozens of other details that require consistency everywhere.
Tell me about your business; how did it start?
"We started our business in 2013 through a desire to find more interesting & unique soft furnishings & accessories to those generally available in retail and online. We were looking for products that would fit seamlessly into any home, be it a contemporary loft apartment or a large country house, all within a very natural, muted and earthy colour palette. The collection of products we selected were showcased at high-end retail events and various charity sales through the year, at venues both in London and elsewhere in the South of England. This helped grow awareness and the positive reception we received everywhere we exhibited led directly to setting up a website to trade from."
Where did the name come from?
"Initially, it was a simple blend of the two words 'Grey' and 'Beige - everything that we sourced and sell fits in the 'Greige' theme of calming, natural tones. Coincidentally, after choosing the name we also discovered that it is actually a word in the dictionary (French origin) meaning 'raw, unbleached, undyed textile or linen' - very apt too as this is also very much in line with our overall look!
What makes a small businesses special?
"Most definitely 'customer service' is key for a business like ours, in order to retain existing customers and to attract new buyers online. This extends beyond fulfilling and helping with online enquiries, but also making suggestions with regard to design ideas and for local business and customers delivering the larger, more fragile products. It is most definitely a seven-day commitment throughout the year!"
What are the key attributes of a successful business?
"It is about creating a 'personalised shopping experience' from first visit to what they might need next, no matter where they are in their online or offline shopping journey.
Above all, you need tenacity; working non-stop and taking risks in order to drive a business forward, embracing new technology & apps from finance, accounting, and marketing to service."
What are the biggest Ecommerce challenges?
"It is a very crowded market, with competition online & on the high street, but having more unique product offer is absolutely key, combined with great customer service. The products we source come from a wide range of suppliers, both small independent craftsmen, vintage/antique and large international companies from Europe & beyond.
Managing customer expectation is also very important, as small retailers have to compete with larger multi-national competitors on similar delivery terms. Often people perceive an online business to be non-personal, they think it's a machine but in fact this is not the case!"
Things you wish you had known when starting up?
"We didn't realise how hard it would be and how big the commitment would be compared to running a business-to-business operation.
Understanding finance is always more challenging and more complex than you think, whilst adapting to and using new technology to help save time and money is important, especially with regards to managing stock.
How has Brexit affected your business?
"In terms of exchange rates, fluctuations and a weaker pound, Brexit has already impacted on costs as products sourced from European suppliers are some 15-20% higher. We have also seen a 'slight edginess' amongst some European suppliers about serving UK customers."
What advice would you give someone setting up in business?
"Do your research, have realistic expectations about how hard you have to work. Don't necessarily expect to generate profits fast or high earning in the first twelve months. Get in early with your ideas!"