The retail sector is undergoing an important shift in its evolution, with consumer choice never stronger thanks to a wave of small and nimble operators disrupting established players.
While the slew of negative stories about big names can seem incessant, we shouldn’t overlook exciting smaller companies excelling by thinking and operating differently. Their combined market share grew from 23% in 2013 to 26% in 2016, according to market research firm Mintel.
In a flat market, the real winners are those gaining share and generating profits. For me, three small and medium-sized retailers really encompass this trend, with all three sharing important qualities helping them to succeed.
Internet Fusion started life as an e-commerce technology platform and, over the past 12 years, has evolved, developing its own proprietary technology so it owns the end-to-end customer journey, including its own physical infrastructure.
The founders saw a gap in the market to consolidate niche websites, leveraging the strength of the platform while operating in segments outside the mainstream. These include equestrian, action sports and country lifestyle.
Now across 11 websites, Internet Fusion sells over 800 brands to 35 countries in 15 languages. Nearly half of its sales are international.
The core engaged customer within these sectors wants an online shopping experience that speaks to them as an enthusiast, with broader and more highly curated ranges, original content and other value-added features such as enthusiast-driven discussion blogs.
Another content-driven business that saw a gap in the market is Castore. The premium sportswear brand has a strong market position and an extremely loyal customer base. The business was founded by brothers Tom and Phil Beahon – both former professional athletes – who saw a gap in the market for a men’s luxury and technical sportswear brand.
Castore has enjoyed strong growth, with revenues advancing at a compound annual growth rate of 300% in the last three years. Key to its success is a relentless focus around product and service. It uses a unique blend of the finest Swiss and Italian fabrics and advanced engineering techniques to create superior garments.
The business launched in 2015 in the new customer paradigm – it identifies as a digitally native brand that combines commerce and content to establish strong customer relationships. With an entry price point at £70 for a t-shirt, Castore targets a wealthier audience who are time-poor and inherently loyal to their favourite brands.
“In all these companies the leadership show one fundamentally important characteristic: relentless drive to be different or better”
Like Internet Fusion, much of Castore’s success is centred on its customer engagement with brand ambassadors, such as Andy Murray, helping to drive brand engagement, opening it up to new markets and increasing awareness. While Castore is a relatively new brand, it has enjoyed a good start and its unique positioning and authenticity will ensure its success continues.
While it’s digital-first, it has accelerated growth plans via pop-ups and by partnering with luxury hotels, gyms and selling through retailers to create multichannel touch points.
This open-minded approach to reaching the customer is mirrored at Internet Fusion. The company has made numerous acquisitions, with more in the pipeline. The platform then takes on the ecommerce operations while the founders focus on the creative aspect of product and content creation. Bolt-on sites also benefit from economies of scale, access to international markets, marketplaces and cost synergies.
And it’s not just its customers who are engaged – the brands it sells are also keen to work with Internet Fusion as it offers them an ecommerce route to market far more tailored to the core engaged customer, compared with more generic online retailers.
Pets Corner also trades on its customer engagement. The family-oriented business has operated in the pets sector since 1968. In January, it opened its 150th store and in 2018 it achieved industry-busting like for likes of 5.8%. What makes this ever more impressive is that 98% of sales are in-store. So, what makes Pets Corner such a standout performer?
It has passionate and friendly staff, motivated financially through customer reviews focused on giving the best possible service, and all Pets Corner staff are classroom-trained in one of seven academies across the country. No other pet retailer does this.
It develops its own products and does not compromise on quality, so much so that they are guaranteed for life. As well as pet products, the specialist offers an array of services to help owners’ beloved animals stay happy and healthy. Pets Corner hasn’t changed its strategy for 30 years and all but one of the Pets Corner management started on the shop floor.
These examples show that amid the all-too-often negative sentiment towards the retail industry, there are some fantastic UK success stories out there.
Often, they are characterised by customer engagement, whether that is by motivating staff to provide excellent customer service or by prioritising enthusiast-driven content. Ultimately, in all these companies the leadership show one fundamentally important characteristic: relentless drive to be different, better or both.