The Gentleman’s Shop
Company: ActinicCustomer: The Gentleman’s ShopSubmitted by: DexterityDate: October 2000At a time where the internet is turning products into commodities and forcing down prices it’s reassuring to learn of a Berkshire barber who has used the web to sell top-of-the-range grooming accessories for men, such as a shaving brush for £240.Perhaps even more reassuring to small businesses, wondering if they’re getting left behind in the e-commerce rush, is to learn that a year earlier Charlotte and Robert Johnston hadn’t even got a computer and knew little about how to use one. Yet now Charlotte has built her own site and sells products all over the world.Robert Johnston has run a successful barber’s shop in Hungerford, Berkshire, since 1988 and moved to larger premises in 1997 that allowed Charlotte to open The Gentleman’s Shop. The town is small and attractive and used to be one of the coaching stops on the main Bristol to London road.
Most traffic now rushes past it on the M4, but Hungerford has become an important tourist centre for exploring the nearby Cotswolds as well as historic cities such as Bath or Salisbury.”We used to sell toiletries to our local customers”, explains Charlotte, “but having larger premises meant that we could expand that side and offer a good range of shaving accessories and quality gifts for discerning customers through what we named The Gentleman’s Shop.””Several tourists, mostly Americans, had asked us for our web address”, Robert adds, “but it was only during a chance conversation while I was cutting a customer’s hair that the idea of having our own site seemed possible.”Because they knew nothing about computers and were apprehensive about what was involved the Johnstons followed what seemed at first the safe and easy path of using a web-based shopping mall, a decision they came to regret.”It was pretty expensive”, says Charlotte, “with a minimum monthly charge of £50 and a further £15 a month for every additional fifty items we listed. We could see ourselves easily spending £1,500 to £2,000 a year while being tied to the site and having to start again from scratch if we moved.
What’s more, prices could go up at any time. As we were getting more and more locked in there would be little we could do about it.””We also found we couldn’t update the site as we wanted. We had to use the mall company and they weren’t very responsive. It all came to a head when the programmer went on holiday in December. Our site simply disappeared on Christmas Day and didn’t return properly until the third week in January, well into what should have been a good selling period.
“Another conversation in the barber’s chair alerted Robert to local ISP, Alto-Hiway, based in Newbury, who had recently become Actinic Gold Partners. “We knew of Actinic Catalog”, explains Robert, “but had earlier felt too inexperienced to use it. However, in desperation, Charlotte rang Hiway on New Year’s Eve and their MD personally dropped a copy into us that evening and later helped us to get started.”According to the Johnstons Actinic Catalog paid for itself outright in the first fortnight. Charlotte designed and developed the site herself with just a digital camera plus FrontPage Express, Adobe Photo Deluxe and Actinic Catalog.
She takes digital photographs of the changing stock and creates the new pages whenever they are needed. Charlotte maintains and manages the site from a PC at home, uploading to the Web only when she’s happy with the look of the site. Although both are also very pleased with the help and quality of service given by Hiway, they think a strong point in Catalog’s favour is the flexibility to choose another hosting company without losing any time or money or interrupting their Internet selling.”The software is very logical and straightforward to use – not just for me, but for visitors placing orders”, says Charlotte, adding that as a former foreign exchange dealer she particularly likes the strong security which it provides. “We simply wouldn’t be able to do what we do without Actinic.
“The Johnstons are getting a steadily increasing number of enquiries for The Gentleman’s Shop from their site. Much of the site traffic comes as a result of people using search engines. “We don’t know very much about search engines,” says Charlotte, “but without us doing anything, all our product pages are automatically indexed in many of them because Catalog uses HTML-generated pages. As a result we’re receiving interest from as far afield as Hong Kong and The Falklands.” Shaving brushes selling for £240 are still a rarity but after only a few months the site does account for around 20% of turnover. Sales are coming mainly from the US, Australia & Europe.
With new confidence in the site Charlotte is increasing the range of goods (already over 400 items) and based on the huge upturn in orders last Spring (Web sales last April alone exceeded the total online sales for the previous nine months and sales in the first week of May exceeded April!), she anticipates her online sales rising to at least 50% as marketing takes effect. (Charlotte has had most success with advertising in lifestyle magazines with a US circulation like Country Life). She can in fact see a time when the physical shop is mainly a showcase and all serious transactions are done over the internet.