Why it pays for e-commerce brands to have a brick-and-mortar presence

Amid a wave of online retailers opening physical stores, Alexandra Leonards speaks to Gareth Newman, founder of British e-commerce clothing brand Blakely, to explore how experiential retail is becoming a cornerstone of the brand, the importance of a social media presence, and why opening stores and pop-ups has done wonders for the company.

Blakely originally started as an online business, why did you decide to open a physical store?

We previously had a store in Norwich which was a bit of a pilot, and it was an initiative to get to know our customers in the local area. What we noticed is that it really helped us to build our community significantly, supported us with feedback, and also gave the customer an option to come in and feel how good the fabrics are. It helps build a lot of trust, especially as we were predominantly an online retailer.

When I started 12 years ago it definitely wasn't part of the business plan or the business model to take it to the High Street, but post-Covid, we definitely felt a little bit of a disconnect. We witnessed all the fast fashion brands that are not producing the same quality as us or putting the same assurances into their products competing on an equal playing field online because ultimately it comes down to the content and photos and things like that.

We want to get ourselves into the community more, and the pilot scheme in Norwich, which we had a temporary contract for, worked so well that we explored where else we could scale it to and identified where our biggest audience is. A large part of our customer base is here in London, so we then opened a shop in Westfield Stratford, and it’s allowed us to do so much with the brand. There are definitely plans ahead to open up more.

We open pop-up shops and things like that around the country, focusing on universities and mini shopping centres, on a small scale, but we've just employed an event manager off the back of it because it's now such a key part of our business to help develop that community and for them to see that we are real people producing the clothes, that we’re local, that we're not from one million miles away, that we're producing good quality items and that we care about the people within our community. There will definitely be a lot more.

We're looking at other retail areas as well in Manchester, Birmingham and the obvious places. But also we have quite large demographic in Berlin and in Paris and places like that, so the future is looking very expansive!

How is Blakely building a stronger bond with its customers through experiential retail?

Going back to customers that are coming into the shop; at the moment we're seeing that around 66 per cent of people that come in are new customers. With the business in the early days, it was a little bit slow, and then I adopted the thought process around the idea that you can have the best product in the world, if you don’t take it to the customer, the customer is too busy to come and find you. So, effectively, you need to take it to them.

That’s where a lot of our marketing was built and that’s now how we’re approaching the retail side of things. And Shopify powers the whole system, whether it is for an omnichannel service, the POS, and there's also a back-end system, so our regular or repeat customers are able to come into the shop and can follow their own profile online if they need to, or vice versa.

For a lot of the new customers who are creating profiles within our community, they can see their orders online, they can adjust them, they can also order in store things that we stock online because the technology is seamlessly integrated. If we don't have their size they can pay for it in store, it’s processed, and then, because of the back-end system, we can then send the product directly to their house while they're still effectively in the shop. We do see a slight decrease in cart value in the shop, but that's simply because we aren't able to store the same quantity of products that we have online.

Having that online option when they're in the store as well is just beautiful because we have a presence in in the local area and we know the people that come in, and we’re able to create events. For example, we've got a yoga event coming up for the locals. I think there's 40 in each class, made up of our customers and a few other cool people that align with the brand, and it really allows us to give back to our community. It's a free event, but they also get free yoga sets and they get free towels and water bottles and it just really gives us an opportunity to give back to the people that we are already in contact with and make them feel as special as they make us feel by purchasing from us.

What kind of impact has Blakeley's decision to provide these type of experiences had on the company?

We're growing online. Before November 2023, growth year-on-year was at 49 per cent. But November saw a 98 per cent increase in sales, which is above and beyond even my wildest dreams. The shop has also grown, so you can see where you're getting repeat customers that have only purchased from the shop, returning to the shop, but you can also can see the customers that have purchased items in the shop and then gone online and purchased more because they understand what sizing they are and they understand the quality of the products.

It's growing substantially and the shop is growing at an almost equal rate as online. So, it's mind blowing to be honest. And as I mentioned before around 66 per cent of those that enter the shop are new customers, so it's really good for discovery of the brands, which then in turn then helps create return customers.

Ultimately, people buy from people, and we very much do not want to be a faceless brand which a lot of these fast fashion online retailers are. We want to make sure that customers know that there are people behind the scenes that care and that you can go to one of our team members in the shop and they'll have equally as much enthusiasm as I have for the brand, making sure that our customers feel as special buying in-store as in any other online shop, but definitely more special than some of the other online retailers that are in the space.

Looking ahead, how important do you think experiential retail will be for the future of the industry and why?

It should be massive, if people aren't giving back to the customers, I think that it's just completely wrong and they're probably doing it for the wrong reasons. The whole reason behind creating the business was to build a brand that the majority of people can buy from. We create great products and everything is lovingly designed. And that also perfectly leads on to the reasons why we're doing the pop-up shops, because we don't want to create a brand that’s just a very transactional, we want customers to come on the journey with us.

It should be part of every online brand’s arsenal to roll out experiential retail and events to really meet and understand customers. You get tremendous feedback, and you can also make personal connections. People can see who's behind the brand and really get to understand the brand better as a whole rather than just as a perfectly curated Instagram post.

You obviously have different types of customers with different levels of interest, but I do think that a large majority of our customers do appreciate more engagement and interaction than possibly some other brands provide.

How do you provide a seamless integration between customers interacting online and customers experiencing the brand in store? How much of a role does technology play, and how important is it to get that balance right?

Ultimately, it comes down to being able to have the omnichannel Shopify platform – we wouldn't have been able to do this without it.

If we'd had two different companies running both areas it would have been a catastrophe, but with Shopify, you can literally pick it up and we can do a pop-up shop in Manchester one week, then the next week we can be in Bristol, we can be in London, we can be doing all these different things because it's seamlessly integrated. We're able to then help consumers via our customer service and track orders and to see if they have any issues or queries or things like that. It enables us to understand where the customers come from, who they are, what they are, how many times they've purchased from us and then it then allows us to then reward those customers by loyalty schemes that Shopify run. It effectively creates a seamless journey that that we would be lost without.

What role does social media and online engagement play in your overall strategy and how does this link to your in-store proposition?

In terms of footfall at these different locations you are limited, so a lot of the time people first discover us online, through social media and other marketing. Shopify helps track a lot of that and you get to understand roughly where everyone comes from. It’s also really good because we're competing in an age where there are TikTok fakes and terrible quality items, so it helps to have the shop and presence on the High Street because helps to build trust in us.

Effectively we're not drop shippers from the Middle East, for example. We are present in the country that they're purchasing from and they are probably able to buy with a lot more trust and a lot more enthusiasm, so social media is huge for us because it is like I said, more often than not it’s the first impression that that a customer gets of us. Around all of our different locations we run social media adverts to the local areas, which gives locals an awareness that there is a shop close by.

You can have the best product in the world or the best shop in the world, but if people aren't aware of you then then they're too busy to come and find you; people's lives are ridiculously busy. So, it helps us take our brands and what we're doing and our philosophy to the customer, so social media is huge and it does play a massive role in our growth.

It also allows us to grow in into different areas and different sectors and tap into an audience that 15 years ago we never would have. We have a European HQ in Belgium which helps distribute and supply customers all over Europe. Before social media, I can't imagine that we would have ever been able to target these groups of people and we had no idea that that, for example, places like Berlin or Munich have a real affinity for the stuff that we're doing. It helps with our online presence, and it helps us grow into different markets that we literally could never even dreamed of.

Do you have any particular projects or experiences lined up?

We just recently hired a new events manager because the events and creating the brand experiences is going to be a huge part of the business going forward. One example I mentioned earlier is the yoga experience, and we've got several more yoga, Pilates and health wellness events going on. Wellness and health is something that we’re looking to expand into more. We’re planning on doing a kind of wellness retreat in late Spring, where the community can come along. It's going to be an even bigger event with around 1,000 or so people who are going to be attending the week.

Ultimately, we want to improve and enrich people's lives and within the brand most of the staff here are big into health and wellness. So, we want to put on events that people can come to where they can learn about themselves and to grow themselves and to also have a bit of fun and to do some yoga and to do some breath work and there will be speakers and a bit of music. But there's also a swimming pool, lake swims, and cold therapy – so we do lots of little events to then build up to the big one that’s taking place in late spring.

A lot of what we're doing is surrounding health and wellness and with partnering up a lot with local PT-lead gyms rather than the big guys. A lot of the locals there already have a community, and we partner with them and put on events. So, it’s a really exciting time for both the men's and the women's side of things. 2024 is going to be fun and it's going to be action-packed.

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