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Keep customers happy with good online service

Small retailers can move their business to a new level by experimenting with the internet, according to Robin Stewart, owner of Antrim based Robinson’s Shoemakers.

‘‘About three years ago, we were in real danger of closing,’’ Stewart said. ‘‘We decided to try putting a couple of pairs of shoes on eBay and see. It has worked so well for us. You have got to look beyond what you are already doing.’’

The company now uses three online routes its own website, eBay and Amazon to reach customers across the globe, Stewart said.

‘‘Last month, our website, www.robinsonsshoes.com, had 11,549 visits from 117 countries, including Greenland,T ajikistan, Mongolia and Fiji,’’ said Stewart.

‘‘Our main customers, though, are in the UK, US, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Russia and Japan.

Online sales

‘‘We have our own shop on eBay, which would be our biggest seller. We sell a range of stuff on Amazon as well. Seven of our staff are working on the online end full-time. A lot of the work is in updating the stock available online. We have 4,500 listings on eBay.’’

Stewart advised SMEs selling online to prioritise customer service.

‘‘Often when you buy stuff online, it is very cold and there is no personal contact,’’ he said. ‘‘We encourage a rapport with the customer, getting them to ask questions and immediately answering. On our website, you can see positive feedback from people all over the world.’’

Robinson’s Shoemakers was a traditional cobblers when it was first established in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in 1954. Stewart bought the business from his father-in-law in September 1996.

‘‘I knew nothing about footwear at that stage,’’ he said. ‘‘It was almost impossible to obtain any grants or loans, because a shoe repair business was viewed as high risk. As I sold shoes, I put the money straight back in to increase stock. I had no capital to invest, so could do things no other way.’’

The company now has 15 staff, including an expert shoemaker and shoe repairer, working in three shops, all of which are within 40 yards of each other.

Alongside its own range of handmade shoes, the company stocks quality brands, including Church, Loake, Barker, Cheaney and Hunter. Stewart advised other smaller retailers to concentrate on the top end of the market, rather than trying to beat big chains on price.

High quality brands

‘‘We only sell high quality brands, aiming at the top 5 per cent of footwear buyers,’’ he said. ‘‘We now have customers coming to us from all over Ireland and often spend over an hour with one person. We specialise in fitting shoes properly and find that 95 per cent of new customers are wearing the wrong size shoe.’’

Robinsons’ own brands include its Presidential Collection, which builds on Ireland’s historic links with American presidents such as Andrew Jackson.

‘‘We wanted to make a range of Irish shoes to deliberately target the American market,’’ said Stewart. ‘‘Brogues became a quintessential English gentleman’s shoe, but we are reclaiming it as an Irish shoe, and looking to tap into our 40 million Irish-American cousins across the Atlantic. They have sold very well for us.’’

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