Business Essentials: 'Our food sells well at Christmas but can we stretch to online trimmings?'

The Shropshire Spice Company has to overhaul its website to reach internet shoppers. But cost is an issue
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The Independent Online

The Shropshire Spice Company can rest assured that it won't be overlooked this Christmas. Its festive food-and-drink products - among them, traditional stuffings, bread sauce mix and mulled wine - are stocked in the likes of Tesco, J Sainsbury and Waitrose. You can also get them from a range of independent farm shops and delicatessens. But if you want to buy them online or in a shop abroad, you may not have much joy - at least not yet.

While the Shropshire Spice Company is keen that customers should be able to buy its products in this way, the firm has been told it needs to overhaul its website first. "We would like to know how to do this, while keeping costs to a minimum," says owner Fiona Mulroy. "We also want to be absolutely sure this is the right step, given the potential costs of maximising online sales and exporting once the website is ready."

As part of the Heart of England Fine Food Group, the company recently had its website evaluated by a team at the University of Brighton. "They were researching food and drink sites and we benefited from their advice for free, which is great for a company our size, with just 15 staff," she says.

The team said the website didn't just need improving - it needed to be redeveloped to allow for export and successful online sales to take place. "In particular, we only got two out of 10 in the score for accessibility. They put key words like 'gourmet stuffings' into search engines and we didn't even appear on the first three pages. More happily, we scored seven out of 10 visually.

"They thought the site was appealing, but that lots of opportunities were missed because we're not found," she explains.

The problem for this small firm is that it is already investing in a rebranding and in hiring a PR company. "So we have quite a bit of expense, which means a hefty investment in a web redevelopment could be too expensive," adds Ms Mulroy.

On a positive note, she has been successful in sourcing some funding. "We contacted Switch on Shropshire, a government agency designed to assist business in the county. I found out we'd qualify for a grant of up to half the costs to develop the website, if we guarantee going down the e-commerce route," she says.

But here lies her second concern. "Even if we do manage to get the site up to scratch, how can we work out if we can afford the ongoing administration and marketing costs involved in export and online sales?"

The company's geographical location - in a remote rural area - is also an issue. "If the website is set up for these kinds of transaction, we could have difficulties in recruiting staff to manage the extra number of orders. Perhaps there's a way of re-organising orders to ensure a greater workload is sensibly managed, but I'm not sure."

Despite the potential difficulties, Ms Mulroy admits she's tempted to go ahead. "We're already selling well in the States, although that is made easier by someone specific handling that for us," she explains.

"Making this move would also be a good opportunity to sell more of our products. For example, we currently have 10 types of stuffing, but supermarkets only stock four."

www.shropshire-spice.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Pete Ferns, Director, Natwest Banking

"I think your website is particularly good visually and it is clear that people are already interested in your company and your products.

"Adding online purchasing may seem complex but there are a number of tools and services that help to make this process quite simple. You could, say, use a website building service such as Shopcreator, which offers a range of solutions for any size of business.

"You should also ask yourself the question, how would you cope with an increase in sales? The internet is a huge and worldwide market, and the risk of alienating customers by not fulfilling their orders could be greater than the potential business you gain.

"I would also recommend using search engines, such as Google, to gain new customers.

"You will want to appear as prominently as possible on a search engine. You can achieve this either by paying for it or by improving your natural position.

"This is all about building a well-designed website. Make the site as accessible as possible, get the right content and build referrals from other relevant sites.

"The search engines themselves are a good source of tips to help with this process."

Phillip Everson, Partner, Deloitte Consulting

"The Shropshire Spice Company faces three challenges. First the website. Currently, it has fallen into the expensive trap of being over-designed and under- engineered. The existing site looks good but does not work. A web design company could link the site to a third party capable of handling credit card payments, for around £1,500. Working with a web company remotely over the internet would reduce the cost.

"Online marketing is vital. A daily advertising budget should be set, say £10, with Google adwords or Overture. Then monitor the results. Consider using a search-engine optimisation firm but look at how it charges.

"Third, the back office. The company has 15 staff with an established order-fulfilment capability. This arrangement should be changed as little as possible to accommodate the new internet channel. It may be that, in the early days, simply printing off the internet orders at the beginning of the day and running them through existing processes would be cheapest."

Tony Meyers, Director, Lynx Internet

"This is a business that has a great opportunity to expand online.

"Adding the website address to packaging will generate business and enhance the brand. People who order online will be evangelists who boost the status of this brand - much more so than people who just pick up a pack in Tesco.

"However, the site was unavailable for three days. A new host is clearly a must. Also, it is at present totally unfriendly to search engines, and this must change.

"Tracking tools should be used to measure the return on investment from paid-for online marketing. With these tools, you advertise only where you make money.

"E-commerce sites should generate money. But to minimise risk and expense, this site should be based on a proven software product - something that can be evaluated before purchase.

"Finally, you should remember that e-commerce typically reduces the number of staff needed, but efficient order processing is a priority in the revamp."

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