Getting online: the challenges
Since its inception in 1993, the traditional way of doing business for OFFICE 1 has been to appoint Master Franchisees and focus on retail through sub-franchising backed by telemarketing for B2B.
In 2009, we saw the industry rapidly changing in the face of a difficult economic environment exacerbated by the entry of large discount chains, the commoditisation of the business, changes in the assortment mix and, most importantly, inroads from larger players with a much more professional and specialised approach to e-commerce, a business with which we had very little experience and even less knowhow.
We immediately became aware that e-commerce presented an existential threat to our retail focus and the survival of our franchisees, large and small, as it provided an enhanced shopping experience to customers and exposed price disparities at retail with lightning speed. This was not the industry we knew. Search engine spiders were rapidly getting the upper hand over concrete and bricks, as reflected by our amorphous sales and the alarming information that kept coming from the field, particularly from our more developed, bread-and-butter markets in Europe.
We were very clear that our knowledge of e-commerce was close to zero and that we had to move fast and become experts like we were at retail if we expected our franchisees to look up to us and follow our leadership. For starters, we needed to create a new state-of-the-art platform and then hire and develop a core staff of experts in the key areas of IT, web marketing, social networking and creative development.
The beginning was more arduous and painstaking than expected, as often happens, and we blew through all our budgetary and scheduling projections.
In essence, when starting in e-commerce one should have in mind the following:
- An accurate and detailed platform-building and launch plan, which takes into account unforeseen obstacles and time for these, is fundamental to entry into e-commerce. Most important to planning is attention to the smallest details and allowing a large reserve of time, perhaps not smaller than 50%
- Bridging and debugging are very time-consuming tasks. However, they must be carefully done. If you miss a detail of the bridge, this would mean lost communication, more manual work later and more time debugging
- Selection of an appropriate hosting company and suitable plan is vital for the project. It took time for us to learn about the best type of hosting needed and how to set up the platform for optimum performance. Use credible hosting companies with experience in your type of platform
- A website performs well when it has a large assortment and provides easy navigation to customers. Product range selection, product detail, database structure and pricing optimisation are laborious but vital parts of the launching process. More content is never too much as long as it is given in a logical and organised way
- The offline marketing rules and methods do not apply to online sales. One needs to think outside the box and to acquire a completely different set of skills to market a website. The information is now fairly readily available but has to be acquired often from the outside. In retrospect, building a team of young and ambitious experts, ready to learn and excited to share their experience, was fundamental to the success of a project that took two years to complete.
While we are not yet an all powerful web marketing machine with fire power equal to that of the big guys, our franchisees now have a fighting chance and we are confident that with the added advantage of a nimbler organisation and our many bricks around the world we will compete. Paradoxically, we had to change – and change quickly – so that things remained the same.