According to Dave Duarte,
a digital media and marketing educator, embracing the online space is a no-brainer for an entrepreneur. "A website helps to set you apart from your competitors and helps you get people interested in your brand."
Sarah Dickson (pictured right) of shop-label.com agreed with Duarte that local designers should embrace online media. "Today if you hear the name of a designer, you automatically Google them."
A designer who has used online media to boost his business is Stiaan Louw. "When I started my brand I thought that the more presence I have, the more brand identity I will gain, which will affect brand confidence and ultimately I will attract more customers. These days it is not about trying to get into magazines, you can promote yourself online. This is a different way of accelerating your brand. The internet is all about creating an immediate presence and you can boost this by constantly feeding consumers more information by regularly updating your website."
Duarte said that by asserting yourself and your brand through the internet, consumers could start to think of you as a thought leader in your industry. However, in order to achieve all this you have to take the time to familiarise yourself with the media. Heather Moore of Skinny Laminx advises that you take the time to explore the potential online can offer you. "It is a non-traditional means of publicity, instead of waiting around to be recognised, it does take a lot of work – it is not a magic wand that bring in sales."
For Louw it all began when he changed his brand from women's to men's clothing. "I realised that I had to find different ways to communicate with customers because my brand was definitely less mainstream so I could not rely on conventional media because my new market was not consuming those media. During Cape Town Fashion Week last year I started a blog and began to mention links where I was featured. I built up a database of over 1000 clients and sent them links to my blog and to other websites that had mentioned my brand. When I look how far I've come and see what I can still do it really excites me."
Many local entrepreneurs such as Kim Gray and Moore began their online businesses with a blog. "My website is a personal experience, people connect with my posts where I make recommendations and some of the items I recommend I sell in my shop."
Moore does not sell her wares through her blog but rather through a third party e-commerce website called Etsy . "I didn't start with a business plan to sell online, I started a blog as a record of what I was doing and I never had any expectations." Etsy is portal of creative people who sell whatever they are able to make. You pay a listing fee to be registered on the website and they take commission, there is also commission on the payment system used.
By May 2008, Moore had been selling her products online for a year and was able to resign from her full time job and pursue Skinny Laminx full time. "It's difficult to know how it grew but is just did. Probably through hard work and a lot of networking. I think Twitter is a very generous way to promote your brand – particularly the way people retweet to generate publicity and comment on your goods. It is a great way to generate feedback."
Duarte (pictured right) recommends this kind of experimentation with social media and websites as the best way to enter the online space. "A blog is a big commitment because it needs fresh content regularly. A standard website only needs to be updated on a monthly basis. You can put your Twitter updates on the home page to create movement and new content. Every designer should have Twitter profile, all it requires is that you fill 140 characters so it does not take much time or effort."
Louw has gained a large clientele base through social media such as Facebook and said that it can be great to attract international clients. Another direction to pursue in order to tap into a broader market is the mobile market. Tools such as Mobilitrix are available, which enable you to send bulk SMSs, but it is advisable to ensure that your potential recipients agree to have SMSs sent to them, as Duarte warns, you should not spam consumers.
Louw is also considering using YouTube so that customers who are unable to attend his fashion shows can still view his latest collections. According to Duarte YouTube is in the top 10 most viewed websites in South Africa – it is hovering around five. "These kinds of platforms are an opportunity to engage people with your brand and to find out who your fans are. People love to refer their friends so through these various social media you can build your potential consumer base," Duarte said.
Learning about the space
For those who have entered online space, it has been a process of learning along the way. Based on their experiences they all agree that it is takes a lot of effort, hard work and can be all-consuming. Dickson said that in addition to keeping her website as fresh as possible and brainstorming ideas to drive traffic to her website, she is also educating people on buying online as this is still a new concept in South Africa.
Frankie Fleck, of adamandeve.co.za , can vouch for the amount of time it demands. "I started three years ago and the business was going well, but I was doing it while I was working and then I fell pregnant. After having my baby, I had to put the website on hold. I hope to reopen the website in about six months," she explained.
While clothes shopping online is relatively new to South Africa, it is growing. As Dickson pointed out: "South African consumers are heading into the online space, you can see this if you look at local consumer patterns. People are increasingly doing their grocery shopping online or buying books and CDs through the likes of Kalahari ." She added that South Africans are concerned about the safety of putting their credit card details online. "I do what I can to take away that fear, so I often suggest that people can pay via EFT. I have also ensured that I have a great return policy."
Gray agreed that a personal touch is really important. "I have also learnt how important it is to photograph items correctly. I can't afford to have them professionally photographed but I have learnt how to present them properly so that customers have a clear idea of what they are buying. It is also important when posting items to give customers a proper time frame, as I cannot offer next day service as some international websites do."
These are all important aspects that need to be considered when selling merchandise online. Fleck said that when she opened her online store she soon realised how much it entailed. "It is not as easy as it seems, especially if you are a one-man band. You have to wear different hats, you can't just do the things you enjoy you also have to push business, do marketing and set up and enforce certain policies and procedures."
The double-edged sword of online retail is that it is a cost-effective way to open your own store but it means dealing with all aspects of retail. For this reason Duarte said that it can be intimidating and recommends sites such as Etsy
or Springleap . "This way you can get used to selling online as it has a very different dynamic to a physical store."
The great advantage of an online store is that you don't have the regular overheads and headaches of a physical shop such as renting space and managing staff. However Dickson claims that an online store is not necessarily cheaper than a physical store. Both Duarte and Moore disagree with this. Moore said that while there are overheads for an online store they are smaller and that it is possible to get a website up in a morning at minimal cost. Experimenting and research will make you familiar with the details of setting up a website. Should you choose to have a website professionally custom built in the future you will have an idea of what you want. "If you want it to be custom built but have not experimented in the online space, you can land up being unsure of what you are paying for and then end up being ripped off," Duarte advised.
A big advantage, particularly for new designers, is that you do not have to limit the availability of your clothing to one province, town or mall. Through the Internet you can offer your designs to the whole country. Both Dickson and Fleck said, however, through offering it nationally and relying on Internet payments there is the concern of fraud. "If someone is a first-time buyer I do what I can to protect myself by requesting proof of identity and for the billing address," Dickson said. Although Fleck used similar precautions she had a number of run-ins with fraud. "Customers would buy items, I would do all the checks I could do and then send the items to them only to be notified that the payment was made on a fraudulent credit card and the payment was withdrawn. It can be a real eye opener, I have learnt a lot in a short space of time."
Another challenge with growing online is that it can grow very quickly. "The bigger you become the more you move from being a creative to being a manager. You always feel like you should be doing more and more and it is difficult to get away from work especially if you are dealing clients from all over the world," Moore said.
Heading into online
So what is the first step of exposing your business to online media? Duarte recommends that you first build up contacts and potential clients by setting up a website and a Twitter account. "Get blogging and Twitter traffic and once you have many followers, then you can start selling online. This also gives you an opportunity to get feedback on your products so that you can really understand your market and better serve them."
Louw agreed and said, "Before you can even start thinking about sales. You need to think about which online media your market consumes and then use them whether it is Facebook , blogging or Twitter. Also get to know different blogs so you can see who you should be connecting with."
According to Duarte if you have basic MS Word skills, then you can set a website up. There is a lot of information available so take the time to research and decide on your strategy. "Once you know what your vision is you can make your own rules, but be aware that a website is another branding channel so ensure that you utilise good design, photos and writing," he said.
Fleck agreed that you need to be aware that your website is a brand extension. "You don't want to have a website if it does not do your brand justice. Selling online adds a whole different aspect to your business so you should ensure that you reflect your brand in all aspects of the consumer experience – ensure that you package your parcels beautifully, offer a great return policy and this will help build trust in your brand." Davidson agreed and said that you should also think about how you want website to work because it is tricky and expensive to change the functionality afterwards.