Finding a niche market is the key to a successful online business. James Patten discovered this when he started his online luxury cosmetics and beauty products store Ry.com.au in 2007.
At the time, Patten owned a hairdressing salon. He noticed the boom in international cosmetics companies selling their haircare products online. Patten examined his own product range and realised there was a market to sell professional haircare products, without customers needing to visit the salon. He teamed up with business partner Bradley Carr and launched Ry, an online platform to sell salon quality products.
Patten created a formula for the online store that would allow them to run a successful ecommerce business in any category. In January 2011 he applied his formula to a new sector and launched KitchenwareSuperstore online.
When starting out, the biggest challenge Patten faced was convincing the established high-end brands to sell their products online. “Many were individual small businesses which didn’t know if they wanted to put a high-end salon product in everybody’s front room,” he says. But by building trust and convincing the brands it would be a mutually beneficial partnership, Patten overcame this hurdle.
At first the online store was supplementary to the physical salon, but after 12 months Patten realised its potential and put more time into the online operations. His first office was a laptop on a tumble dryer, but now the three stores turn over $9 million per annum.
Patten spoke to SmartCompany about the importance of customer service for online retailers, digital marketing and kicking goals on the web.
Name: James Patten
Location: Gold Coast
Patten is a self-professed smartphone addict and starts the day by checking his emails.
“I’m a pretty poor example for people who are addicted to their smartphones,” he says.
“I have a one-year-old and a wife who works from home, so I tend to try and see them before going to work.”
Aside from this, Patten’s day is flexible as he claims he’s “not a particularly structured person”.
“My desk looks like chaos and I’m not particularly good at planning my week. But as I’ve gotten busier I’ve realised you can’t go on being unorganised.”
Patten’s role is largely to manage the marketing and creative side of the business.
“What we try and do is keep all the marketing online. My job is to look for partnerships and strategic ways to improve the customer experience,” he says.
“We look at the customer journey of each product to determine what they want and why, and then we work with our affiliates to make it happen… You can throw an idea into the office and then you’re quickly back at your desk, typing a plan for it, and then adding it to the diary and putting it into action.”
Ry manages its own public relations and frequently writes blog posts informing consumers about everything from hair loss to how to spot a fake GHD (a brand of hair straightener).
“We have become a very good source for the media… we’re one of the few (online stores) which have trained skin therapists, beauticians and hairdressers working under one roof, which gives us the ability to write these posts.”
Patten doesn’t claim to be a news source, but he says the staff try and stay on top of all the current trends and problems in the industry.
Ry employs around 20 people and Patten has faced the “conundrum” of whether or not to outsource staff.
“In the past 12 to 18 months this has been a big learning curve in the IT industry. As we got bigger, we found we didn’t have enough time to do everything ourselves and we had to think about whether or not to use a freelance agency.
“But we started to listen too much to the external influences and lost our way a bit. It really didn’t work for us. Essentially, we’re an internet start-up and having too many external workers didn’t work for us, so we’ve gone full circle.”
Trying to differentiate your business online, Patten says, is becoming “harder and harder”.
“People set minimum standards of what they expect. We have a live chat facility and a 1300-number which people in Australia can call for free, so we’re building that trust again between the retailer and consumer.
“We’re on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest as well – you need to make up for the fact they can’t be in-store.”
Patten says providing exemplary customer service motivates his staff.
“We don’t have commissions because we’re offering a service. It’s like, if you go to the doctor and you had a cold and then the doctor didn’t offer you antibiotics, you would feel a bit ripped off. We’re selling products which help customers.
“I’ve seen staff members get in their car at 9.30pm and personally drive someone a parcel who was 100km away.
“If you sell one good cream which gives the person results, they’ll pass it onto another person.”
To ensure all Ry staff are passionate about the business, Patten says it’s a mixture of finding the right staff and entrenching key values.
“Last week we all went out to dinner, and then when we’re interviewing staff, we look for what their passions are. There is no point making people do a role they’re not interested in.
“The genuine excitement in the business comes when people get positive feedback from customers.”
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