Business Essentials: Can Hopscotch make the jump to the internet?

Big lessons for growing companies. A nursery shop wants to set up its own website, but it can't find someone to hold its hand, says Kate Hilpern
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It's easy to decide you want to set up a company website; it isn't always child's play putting the thought into practice. "I'd like one that's of reasonable quality for a reasonable cost," says David Hempton-Smith, owner of Hopscotch, a shop in Hereford that sells equipment for babies and toddlers. "But it's proving easier said than done."

It's easy to decide you want to set up a company website; it isn't always child's play putting the thought into practice. "I'd like one that's of reasonable quality for a reasonable cost," says David Hempton-Smith, owner of Hopscotch, a shop in Hereford that sells equipment for babies and toddlers. "But it's proving easier said than done."

Mr Hempton-Smith opened the shop 12 years ago after working on a market stall selling children's clothing. "A pram shop had just closed down in Hereford and I saw the opportunity to set one up specialising in all nursery goods - everything from high chairs to car seats and from prams to cots," he recalls.

The business went from strength to strength and, last August, Hopscotch moved to larger premises. "We were working off 1,000 square feet, which isn't easy when you're selling bulky items. The new shop, which has almost 8,000 sq ft and 30 parking spaces, has enabled us to double our turnover to £500,000," he explains.

What would help to raise this figure even higher, he believes, is a website. "We spend a fair bit of money on advertising - around £16,000 per year - in the Yellow Pages and specialist media, and it's very successful. I would like the website to be an extension of this, showing what brands and items we sell and also providing a map. We get a lot of customers from out of town and I'd like to avoid staff having to take up so much time telling them how to find us. Aside from that, I'm not sure what special features it should include, if any."

One of Mr Hempton-Smith's first ports of call in his quest for the right website was Freeserve. "They appeared willing to sort it out for us. But they just wound up sending a brochure on how to set one up ourselves, which wasn't at all what I was after."

Other options at the cheaper end of the market also proved fruitless. "It seems that in exchange for being low cost, many website providers put their own advertising banner across the top of the site, whereas I wanted the website to advertise Hopscotch solely."

Meanwhile, more expensive options are out of his price range. "The most hopeful oppor- tunity so far seems to be Yellow Pages," says Mr Hempton-Smith. "A rep was recently here to sort out my advert for next year and he said they charge around £500 for your very own site, with no additional banners. But without indepth knowledge of websites, it's difficult to know if that's a good deal."

One thing he is certain about is that he doesn't want to sell directly off his website, at least for the time being. Among his fears are that postage costs for returned goods could soon add up, and that his prices may not be as competitive as those offered on other internet sites. "People come to Hopscotch largely because of our reputation for customer service and that's something I'd like to continue focusing on," he explains.

So how can Mr Hempton-Smith ensure he gets a website that meets his business needs, puts his shop in a good light and comes in at a price within his limited budget?

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Lesley Corti, chief executive, Advertise By Design (a website design and hosting firm)

"David should first decide on his initial requirements - whether he wants a full online catalogue without sales, or just a few selected items and a list of brand names, along with a map and contact page, and any other features. With this outline specification he can look for a designer - in Yellow Pages or online, talking to other local businesses with websites, etc.

"When choosing a designer, he needs to ask himself some questions. Does he like that firm's own website? Does this website link to other client sites the company has designed and does it offer references?

"When he has a shortlist of three or four designers, he should ring them all - there's nothing like the personal touch. At this stage, he should be asking whether they offer a comprehensive service (hosting, search engine optimisation and so on). If he decides later to expand - into online shopping, for example - do they offer this? Given his specification, what would the costs (initial and continuing) be? What about changes?

"Finally, and importantly, does he feel comfortable that he can work with the designer in the long term? Co-operation is the key to success."

Mark Chapman, consultant, shockwaveuk (a web design and project management firm)

"David has an expanding company. An effective, well-managed, low-cost website will be a key business tool in building on that success.

"To develop an effective internet presence, he must choose a company that understands his business and its market. Without that, the site will lack credibility, and any money spent on it might as well be tipped down the drain.

"David might be rather disappointed if he thinks advertising experts like Yellow Pages will be the most effective at helping him to create a site that runs perfectly. While many early 'dot coms' went bust wondering what they did wrong, the best internet companies succeeded through good business thinking and execution. Leading offline brands like Yellow Pages might not produce that best-quality website for Hopscotch.

"Even on a tight budget, any internet-based company that can combine solid web- management experience and excellent design know-how should be a good bet."

Alison Hopkins, managing director, Barclays Small Business Banking

"David says that he doesn't want to sell online. But at the same time, he does state that his aim is to increase turnover. Setting up a website that entices a customer with great pictures of a wide range of goods can be a false economy if they can't then buy anything directly.

"Customers can become frustrated by limited access to tempting purchases. After all, Hopscotch has competitors only a mouse-click away.

"For a company looking to the internet as a natural extension of its business, the 'bricks and clicks' model might require David to think seriously about issues such as logistics, returns and customer services. But these are all areas which remain at the heart of any successful retailer, in any case.

"Crucially, and as anyone with young children will know, online shopping can be a boon for tired parents keen to spend their hard-earned cash on the latest accessory for their nearest and dearest. From buggies to Moses baskets, getting the right service and the right product often comes higher up the list of priorities for parents than price.

"David should explore in detail how he can maintain his traditional values of service and choice while broadening his potential customer base."

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