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Nick Wheeler discusses online retail

Updated Thursday, 13th October 2011
Charles Tyrwhitt chairman Nick Wheeler argues that retailers should focus on customers and products, and not get carried away with the latest and greatest online developments

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Fiona Ellis-Chadwick:
Hello Nick. Probably the biggest decision that many businesses have made in the last 15 years is what to do with the internet. How did you decide to set up an online shop for Charles Tyrwhitt?

Nick Wheeler:
I think I was very lucky because I started a mail order business, because that’s all I could do because I was at university at the time and I had to go to lectures and I had to do it remotely, I couldn’t start a shop. So I started mail order which, at a time when there were very few small mail order businesses around. And I sort of carried on doing mail order, sending out brochures and suddenly the internet was invented. And in many ways, I mean that was a real godsend for me because all the internet is, it’s a sort of more efficient way of doing mail order, so for me it was a complete no brainer.

And I think in the early days, one of the real problems companies found who launched on the internet was that they could do the front end side but they didn’t have the fulfilment and the back end side. They couldn’t, you know, give customer service, they couldn’t, you know, dispatch, order, you know, take orders and dispatch them individually because that wasn’t the way businesses worked, traditional retail business is you pick thousands of items off a shelf, put them in a lorry, deliver them to the store, actually picking individual items off a shelf and putting them in boxes and sending them to customers is a very different thing.

So it was a totally natural progression for us, and the internet has just been fantastic. You know, we are 70% online now as a business and I truly believe that, you know, what we’ve seen on the internet to date is nothing compared to what the internet’s going to be doing for us in 20 years’ time.

Fiona Ellis-Chadwick:
So you were a pioneer really in the online shopping era. How do you decide though with technologies changing all of the time what trends to take on and what to ignore?

Nick Wheeler:
I think it’s really important to make sure that your internet side of the business is run by, or overseen by marketing people. So you need to do what is right for your customer, rather than doing what is right for your extremely clever, very techy developers, because they will want to do whatever is the new, new thing. They’ll want to do the exciting thing or the exciting thing for them, but in reality the customer will see probably no difference. So I think it’s really important to let, effectively let the customer decide, let the customer decide, the marketing people understand what the customer wants, and that’s how, you know, that’s how we develop our site.

So we don’t, you know, there’s been lots of fantastic new and crazy inventions on, you know, in the internet world, but actually a hell of a lot of them have never made any difference to any business, and I think, you know, something like Facebook and Twitter is something, is an interesting one, where very few companies have managed to turn that to their advantage commercially. Now I think over time people will work out how it works, how it works for the customer and works for the company. But at the moment, you know, there’s no point really jumping on the bandwagon and going big time into those sort of new technologies, time will tell, and the right time to go in is when the customers are saying right, you know, we’d like you to be involved.

Fiona Ellis-Chadwick:
What would be your top tips for a retailer wanting to set up an online shop for the first time?

Nick Wheeler:
I think the really important thing is to forget the fact it’s an online shop. What you need to find is you need to find a product that the customer wants, and you need to make sure that that product is a product that the customer will buy again. Because what tends to happen, once you decide, once you’ve got your product, if you decide to sell it online, I think one of the really important things is that getting a customer online is very expensive, people sort of think of it as being easy and cheap. Actually, you know, Google make a lot of money for a reason, they charge you a hell of a lot to find a customer. And so you need to have a product that is a repeat product, so a product that people will carry on buying, you know, we sell shirts, people buy shirts, they need to replace them the whole time.

And so ultimately it’s about getting the product right first of all, don’t think of it as an internet business, but once you have a product that you think people need, that is great quality, that they’re going to want to buy again, then, you know, you can put it online. And it’s about, you know, online, when I say online, it’s the same with mail order. It’s about starting small, testing everything, you know, you can spend £50 with Google and get a pretty good feel as to whether it’s going to work or not. Some people come along and they say right I’m going to spend £100,000 on Google and they sort of lose it all very, very quickly. Just test, test, test, you know, the great thing about the internet is you can do that, you get instant feedback, instant results. And, you know, I always think of myself as a tortoise, you know, I started my business 25 years ago and test, test, test, you know, and you plod on and as you, you know, compound growth as Warren Buffett said is a wonderful thing, you know, you suddenly find your business is a lot bigger than it was when you started.

Fiona Ellis-Chadwick:
Thank you very much.

Nick Wheeler:
Thank you.

Nick Wheeler was talking to Fiona Ellis-Chadwick, of the Open University's Faculty of Business and Law, after a recording of The Bottom Line.

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