When brothers Tim and Phil Lodge set up their family-run shoe shops in 1998, online support took the form of a simple shop locator and comments box. Today, www.shoesdirect.co.uk is a flourishing transactional site that rebuffs the claim that shoes can't be sold online.
'We're not selling brands our customers don't already know about,' says Tim, who stocks a range of shoes from Loake to Clarks. 'The people we target know the product - they are repeat buyers who are time-poor.'
Returns statistics seem to justify the strategy. Compared to the industry standard of 35%-40% of purchases returned, the web site has it down to 25%. Visitor numbers hit 1,300 per day and the site has increased company turnover by 25%. Meanwhile, business via the web is growing by 40% a month.
Tim's two biggest problems are to make deliveries more reliable and to combat fraud. A quarter of orders demonstrate incorrect use of cards, he says. Combine this with the one-in-four return rate and there is potential for lost business. But clever back-end software tells a shoesdirect operator which pages visitors are on, live. If a customer seems to be stuck, the assistant fires off a question box, asking if help is needed. He or she can then load the appropriate page. A shoe site with an assistant to boot.