For Whittard of Chelsea, purveyor of fine teas and freshly ground coffee, the potential of its online business is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary market.
In just under two years, the site (www.whittard.com) is taking as much in annual turnover as one of the company's small retail sites - without the usual bricks-and-mortar costs. It started as a 'nice to have and see what happens' sort of site, with no upfront costs (the designer is paid a percentage of online sales), says deputy MD Simon Hill-Norton.
But the 'real eye-opener' has been that 60% of sales are to Americans. 'We're a small UK brand, without global clout,' he says, 'and we launched the web site in a very low-key way, without any real marketing spend. It makes us wonder what we could do with some real investment. Japan and America are very keen on high-quality heritage brands. And the web gives us so much more opportunity to put the customer at the centre of the business.'
So, (subject to shareholder approval at an EGM in late March) the company will form an alliance with the antfactory, an internet incubator, which, in return for group shares, will invest pounds 2 million upfront and give a warrant to invest further in the next 12 months if the web development is going to plan.