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Expanding into online retailing

QuoteOnline is not just the future of salon retail, it’s already the present. So, if you’re not up to speed with selling online, you need to be on board… fast, advises hairdresser

Salon retailing used to be so simple. Clients would pick up products as part of their salon visit or it might be a case of taking a card order over the phone or popping a package in the post. 

That still happens, of course, but nowadays salons that don’t want to lose out need to be embracing online retailing. An internet “shop window” offers convenience, secure payments and, of course, opportunities to build on all aspects of customer loyalty, both for the salon and for the products you provide. 

Like most good salons, I look on my clients as ongoing “projects”. I treat my clients’ hair as a joint effort between us both. That means not just the service in the salon but full advice and products for home maintenance. And what I definitely don’t want is them running out of products. Ever. 

It’s also well recognised salons selling higher quality retail products not readily available on every high street can enjoy a distinct competitive advantage. The higher the quality and more exclusive, the better. 

When it came to setting up my retail website, I turned to a “techie” friend who used the Joomla! content management system (www.joomla.com) which is provided free under what is known as an open-source licence. I asked him to create a pop-up VirtueMart shop (http://virtuemart.net/). This is also a free open-source licence that you can use alongside Joomla! to create an “e-commerce solution” which is then wrapped into your main site. 

Obviously, this is something that can require fairly specialised knowledge to do properly, so if you aren’t overly technical yourself it makes sense to investigate hiring a specialist to do it for you – but be absolutely clear what it is you want the site to do, what your budget is and how it will get updated and maintained, and by whom (if not you). 

When it comes to payments, I have been buying and requesting money using the PayPal system for years. If you don’t have a PayPal account it’s easy to set up and, for the level of transactions I require, free. VirtueMart takes customer payments via PayPal (as do many other similar sites) so I only provide this payment option. Customers know they can pay securely online with their usual cards or via their own PayPal account if they already have one. 

You also need to think about stock, storage and delivery. I have a little workshop in my garden. My online shop sends each order via email automatically to my father-in-law’s personal email. He then packs the products up and, for a basic three-five day service, we use the myHermes (www.myhermes.co.uk) delivery service. The products are delivered to the customer without anyone having to traipse down the Post Office all the time. It’s all very efficient and (just as importantly) doesn’t tie up the salon phones. Recently, and to encourage those clients who only visit us rarely to stay loyal and restock off our site, we introduced free delivery. VirtueMart can also do a running inventory for you, should you wish. 

So, what effect has all this activity had – in other words, does it make a difference? For us, definitely. Online sales [as of July 2011] have reached 20 per cent of our retail turnover – a not insignificant percentage – and are still growing. 

Part of the key to this, of course, is ensuring people are finding and using the site in the first place. The internet is a vast marketplace and it is very easy for websites to get lost. So you need to be thinking how you will encourage traffic to your website. For me, I paid a local company £1,000 all-in to show me how to run, maintain and optimise the site. 

Already the online retail side of the business is important to our bottom line profit and that is going to accelerate in the future. What’s more, the online retail offer is developing a life of its own, becoming more than just an “add on”. We are now getting new online-only customers because the internet search engines are picking up the keyword search terms from our site. 

Daniel Field runs Daniel Field Organic and Mineral Hairdressing in Barnet, north London and has been retailing hair and skin products for 38 years. A former Prince’s Trust ambassador, he is also a lifelong pioneer of safer, ethically sound haircare products. 

How to get noticed online

With millions of websites all vying for attention (and most people never going beyond the first page of any search), search engine optimisation (SEO) is an issue not to be overlooked when it comes to selling online. Get it wrong and it’s like setting up down a dingy back alley rather than on a prime high street location. 

SEO specialists can command big pay packets so, for small businesses, the rule of thumb is: keep updating your site. Search engines such as Google look for dormant content that has not changed for a while, and these sites tend to slip down the rankings fastest. 

When it comes to SEO-friendly phrases (in other words ones that will match what the users are putting into a search engine) one useful resource is WordTracker’s keyword suggestion tool (https://freekeywords.wordtracker.com). 

Googlerankings (http://www.googlerankings.com) is another useful SEO tool (and free). 

Especially for smaller businesses, an alternative is to invest in pay-per-click (PPC), where you pay a search engine when someone clicks on your advert. The main player here, inevitably, is Google Adwords (adwords.google.com). Your ad will appear if someone types in one of its specific keywords and then you pay Google if they then click through the advert to your site. The more you are prepared to pay, the higher your advert will go in the “sponsored links”. 

The final thing to recognise is that website recognition may not happen overnight. Old-fashioned promotional activity (in-salon, local media and so on) will undoubtedly help drive traffic, as will promotional links on social media sites you are running. 

Useful resources

The NHF’s Legal Lifeline helpline (01234 831965) offers advice on employment matters. For more general business support, contact the NHF membership team for further details, on 01234 831965. 

 Daniel Field - Hairdresser  Quote left

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