Posted on Wednesday 23 March 2011 by Ulster Business

Amazon website

With the economic downturn continuing to wreak havoc on the high street, local independent retailers are increasingly having to adapt their business models to compete. Three local retailers told Catherine Lynagh about their experiences of venturing into the world of online sales

If the volume of missing Christmas presents during the big freeze at the end of last year is anything to go by, Northern Ireland consumers are increasingly making the most of the benefits and ease of purchasing goods online. Big online retailers such as Amazon have become the go-to option for those organised enough to buy gifts early, while online sales also now account for a growing percentage of sales made by established high street companies like John Lewis and supermarket brands such as Tesco. Since the economic crisis hit, local retailers too have begun to embrace and adapt their businesses to realise the potential of online sales at a time when traditional footfall is well down from the peaks of four years ago. Of course, some businesses in the region grasped the potential of the web long before the recession, and for them it has played a key part in helping them weather the storm. One such retailer is Coleraine-based Smyth's Country Sports, found online at www.smythscountry.com and run by Stephen Smyth. The outdoor apparel website has been up and running for nine years thanks to Mr Smyth's foresight and desire to expand beyond the confines of his shop. "It is fabulous and has been the salvation of the business. The business has been running for 35 years and since going online you couldn't name a country that I haven't sold to," he told Ulster Business. "I once sold a bikers jacket to a gentleman in Hong Kong and within days I had positive feedback on the website from him. Then I started getting more sales from Hong Kong. Obviously word had spread. I have sold to the Bahamas and Hawaii – the list is endless." While selling through the internet requires a different approach, Mr Smyth explained that it remains hugely important to take a personal approach to online customers. "I try and offer a very personal service to my customers and I believe this is why they keep coming back. I try to get my personality across and portray my Northern Irishness. I offer a reliable and unforgettable service wherever they are in the world," he said. "My whole website is very personal and I also only use models I know. I use my mother, wife, daughter and friends to model the range. Of course we had some teething problems, but nothing that was insurmountable, even for a man in his 50s." Hedda Mills owns Berlin clothing store with her daughter Carly Einarsson. They have stores selling clothing by Scandinavian designers in Carryduff and Newtownards. Just over two years ago they made the leap to online and launched www.berlinclothing.co.uk. Mrs Mills said that their website has evolved during that period and has gone from strength to strength, so much so that they are investing more money and time to expand it and see it as the future of their business. "We started an online presence about two and a half years ago. Initially we set up the website to be a footprint and we didn't sell anything. Then we realised it would be great for business if we started selling online," said Mrs Mills. "Inevitably we made some mistakes early on, but we have ironed those out and are more confident about selling online. For about three seasons, roughly one year, we have been selling successfully online and we have definitely seen it pay off. We have had enough of a return to invest in the website and are looking to enhance what we offer." She added: "We have had sales all over Europe through the website and even had a sale in Australia. The designers we sell link our website on theirs and that is often how we get sales. Even though it is a lot of extra work, and a lot of trial and error, we have come to the conclusion that it is the way forward and that we have to put the money into the site to get the full return." Father and son Robin and John Stewart run a hugely successful shoemaking business in Carrickfergus called www.Robinsonshoes.com. They are a shining example of how a very traditional independent business can successfully adapt to the modern fast-paced online market. As one of the few remaining shoemakers in Ireland they utilise their uniqueness by selling Irish brogues across the world. The company's online business has grown 200% in the last year and they have just expanded the business in Europe, setting up an office in Spain to manage their Spanish website. Online sales, including those from their website, EBay and Amazon, now account for 90% of their sales. The business was started in 1954, but it wasn't until 2007 that the company went global when John Stewart approached his father with a suggestion to go online. John said: "I came on board in 2007 just as the recession was starting. The only way I could see the business expanding was to go online over time." The gamble paid off and the business now sell on average 400 pairs of shoes online a week. John continued: "We employ 17 staff. And now 45% of our sales are within the UK, 20% sales are to Russia and 15% are to the United States. Without the website this wouldn't be possible. "We are expanding into the Spanish market this year and have launched a Spanish website which employs two people. If that goes well, we will look to expand to France, Germany and the Scandinavian markets." And he added: "We hold our own because we are one of the only shoemakers left in Ireland and our product is so unique. To the future, the key is developing our own brand and expanding in that niche market by appealing to different people. "I will be travelling to America later in the year to discuss the prospect of selling to stores in Boston and New York."

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