Interview between Nick Thomas MD of Cloggs and Jan Klin

How would you describe your company and its mission? is an online retailer specialising in fashion footwear, jeans, denimwear. The website evolved out of a locally-successful independent retail store based in Birmingham. After the first website went up, we immediately uncovered people willing to search for and buy our brand name fashions through the internet. From a handful of weekly orders, we now handle many thousands of monthly orders.

Our mission is to provide a first-class alternative sales channel for our brand-focussed customers at the forefront of ‘Etailing’ technology, supported by the highest standards of fulfilment and customer service.

How long have you had a website and what is its main purpose?

Our first website was created in 1999. It was hard-coded with an out-of-the-box shopping basket and complimented an original small-scale mail order operation. We showed to ourselves fairly quickly that there was a market for interactive online fashion mail order and that we were in a position to service that market. By the end of 2002 we began to properly promote the site and expand the offer significantly, causing us to require a much more sophisticated website infrastructure and backend administration platform. This allowed us to manage our growth and continue to provide a high quality of service to existing and new customers. The main purpose is simply to provide a competitive online sales channel for the products we sell.

Does the site work for you? ie deliver the benefits you were expecting?

Our current choice of platform works in the sense that we are able to take a large volume of orders in a scalable way and is fairly robust from an operational perspective. However, the technology never seems to be entirely free of glitches or errors that have varying degrees of knock-on effects to the business. We have to take a pragmatic approach to this though – as long as you can step back and look at a business that works for our customers, our staff and commercially, that is the main thing. I think that it is very hard to find a perfect technology partner or solution that is as flexible as you need it to be commercially and does everything you would need it to without problems.

So, ‘yes’ it ‘delivers’ pragmatically speaking and ‘no’ it doesn’t always in a strictly commercial sense.

What is your online marketing strategy? – which methods do you use to attract potential customers?

We first and foremost try to encourage repeat business. That means delivering a valuable service to the customer that beats alternative sales channels, fulfilling orders quickly and providing excellent after-sales service, amongst other things. It is very easy to gain business through the internet in the short-term but if you can’t meet customer expectations, the marketing costs of gaining those first-time customers are too great to be profitable. Our online marketing costs can only be justified if a high proportion of customers liked their experience enough to come back and buy from us again.

We have a number of partnerships to support traffic to the website – pay-per-click campaigns, affiliates, shopping channel agreements. These diversify dependence on any one particular source of traffic but are very costly to justify in simple sales terms; you have to look at it as investment in a customer database. Because of this, we are focussing most attention at the moment on our position in natural searches which deliver free traffic.

How does your online activity mesh with your offline marketing?

Our offline marketing consists only of communicating with existing customers through short-run pamphlets promoting particular lines and encouraging them to remember who we are and to come back again at some point. Offline advertising is something we are yet to explore – as a small independent business it would be hard to justify the expense when the returns may take some time to materialise and may also be intangible.

The attractiveness of online marketing is that returns are very visible in real time and you can just work with the numbers to justify or discontinue any expense.

How much business do you do on the web?

About 65% of our business is now online, but rapid growth is pushing that figure higher all the time. It is hard to see us being a pure-play online business because our brands like to work with bricks-and-mortar businesses and there will always be customers who won’t buy footwear and clothing online. Sales online do not always reflect shop sales either – certain lines do better in our store than they do online and vice versa. They will always be complimentary operations for us, although online success may now provide the opportunity to expand the offline business.

How do you see the future regarding your online activity?

We want to continue to provide a service that is valuable to customers and will push the growth of that business as far as we can take it. We want to be at the forefront of the technology because customers are more and more demanding and it is so easy for them to shop elsewhere – we have to provide the best all-round experience available. People have been saying it for years and we are still only just seeing the beginning, but the internet represents the future of shopping and an online component will be almost unavoidable for retail businesses in the future.

What is the single biggest lesson you have learned about your web activities?

Concentrate on two key working relationships. Firstly, focus on building a strong partnership with a reliable technology partner who understands the commercial requirements and can deliver upon them. Secondly, find an effective, affordable online marketing partner and/or strategy which concentrates on highly qualified traffic. Don’t be so concerned with cost and would only ever select partners with proven track records, provide excellent references and already handle businesses bigger than your own.

Can you imagine life without a website?

Yes, it would be lot less stress, I could being involved with technological issues on a daily basis and the world would be simpler. But it would be commercially disastrous for us.

Anything else you want to add?

There is no one single solution or model for everyone else to copy. The things I’ve described above apply to our experience and has worked for us but it may not be relevant for lots of businesses. A pragmatic approach is the key – if it works, keep doing more of it; if it doesn’t stop doing it. Accept that there will always be flaws and work around them.

Cloggs handle many major brands including Levi Jeans, Merrell Shoes, Oakley Sunglasses and many others…