Launching an Online Store: Lessons Learned

Note from AQUA Editors: If you’re struggling to find a solution to the big box/Internet sales issue, you’re not alone — in fact, it’s a issue for pool and spa retailers around the globe. Case in point: Cookes Pools and Spas, a retailer located in Victoria, Australia. Alice Richard, editor of Australian trade publication Pool + Spa, chatted with the owner of Cookes to get his take on what it was like to implement an ecommerce site, how it complements the physical location and what he learned along the way. 

Cookes Pools and Spas launched an online store a few years ago and managing director Cliff Cooke says that, rather than taking away from face-to-face sales, it has actually strengthened his brick-and-mortar store.

“It gives [customers] the chance when we’re not open to actually look at what we do and look at whatever pricing we can put up on there. What we’ve found is that we make very, very little sales out of that, but people come into the store and say, ‘Look, I’ve been online; I’ve had a look and I’m interested in this pump’,” Cooke said.

“There’s a lot of people talking about how the Internet’s really going to hurt the industry, but I think if you adapt to it, you can actually make it a tool for you.”

Cooke acknowledges that his is, perhaps, an unusual case: being based in rural Victoria, many of his customers prefer to buy face to face, and store accessibility and convenience isn’t an issue like it can be in the city, where a trip to the local pool shop can take an hour or more due to traffic.

“That’s not to say this can’t be duplicated in a city area where you’ve got a high-touch bricks-and-mortar store,” he said.

The online Cookes Pools and Spas store is currently hosted using a platform called My Local Pool Shop, which enables smaller operators to set up an online store without having to do all the back-end work themselves. Cooke uses it to sell just to the local area, rather than trying to attract sales from the city, and finds that it works well for his business. (Note from AQUA Editors: a similar service is offered by Bel-Aqua for U.S. pool and spa retailers.)

But, as with any new venture, Cooke says he encountered several learning opportunities along the way.

“The first thing you think is, ‘Damn, do I have to do this?’ because there’s a lot of work. The big thing that we didn’t really understand was how our clients were going to actually interact with it,” said Cooke.

“And we got it wrong for a start because we thought, if we’re going to [launch an online store], we need to put all the things on there and make it bulky, with a lot of product, like everybody else’s, and really competitive prices, like everybody else’s.

“And then we realized we got that wrong. We thought, ‘Hang on, none of that product’s in our area anyway. Who’s going to want the spare parts that are out there anyway?’ It wasn’t relevant to what we sell in our store and what is in this area.

“So what we ended up realizing was that the online store was going to look like our [bricks-and-mortar] store. We [didn’t] design it to sell product into Melbourne or Sydney — that’s not where we want to be. We want our shoppers in the [our immediate area] either buying online through us or coming to our store.

“So, from that standpoint, we’ve realized that you can’t have two prices; you can’t have an online price and an in-store price. You just can’t have two businesses that are separate like that, so they’ve got to be pretty much similar.”

The business has recently decided to move away from the My Local Pool Shop platform and instead to link the online store with his website.

“We found out that it’s much better if we actually connect the main store to our website, rather than [having customers] leaving our main website and going onto another website for our store, which we currently have. We’re redeveloping it now, putting the store embedded within our own website,” he said.

“That’s not a reflection on [My Local Pool Store]; it’s just a reflection on where we’re at now with the business and the size we’ve got. We think that’s the right move going forward. But there’s a lot of smaller businesses out there that would struggle to pay to get it done, and I would encourage them to get involved with someone like that to get it up and running in the first place.”

Reprinted with permission from Pool + Spa. To see the original article, click here. 

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