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Q&A: How I started and run my successful online business

Mandy-Watkins-Hush-Interview

Mandy Watkins, founder, creative director and owner of Hush, shares how she started and runs her successful online business.

Mandy Watkins started her online shop, Hush, from the kitchen table of her Clapham home in 2003, but the business now employs more than 60 people and has loyal customers throughout the UK and beyond. So, what lessons has she learned about how to succeed when selling online?

Name: Mandy Watkins, founder, creative director and owner of Hush.

Business: London-based women’s fashion and lifestyle brand. Most sales come via the Hush website, but last year the ecommerce business started selling via concessions in 16 John Lewis stores.

Background: Australian Watkins moved to London in 2001 after working for five years in Hong Kong. Not long afterwards she was made redundant from her communications role, but this finally gave her the time, money and opportunity to start her own online business, a long-held ambition. Watkins had previously worked for Adidas, so she had retail-marketing experience. Cold winter evenings in the UK made her realise there was a gap in the market for stylish, yet comfortable clothing for women who enjoyed fashion. She launched Hush in 2003 with a small range of pyjamas and the business has gone on to become one of the UK’s leading womenswear retailers.

What are the key advantages of selling online?

Mandy Watkins (MW): “As opposed to via a bricks and mortar store? There are advantages and disadvantages, but generally speaking the overheads aren’t as high and selling online gives more flexibility – you can put decisions into practice very quickly. It’s fast moving and exciting…”

You now sell via John Lewis stores, too, how did that come about?

MW: “They approached us. We’d been asked by different people over the years and had always said no, but John Lewis seemed like a good fit and a good way to introduce our brand to a new audience. It’s been a very successful collaboration, so far.”

And you have an affiliates programme?

MW: “We do, we introduced it very early on. We pay a commission on any sale we get via a referral from an affiliate site, so it was – and is – a low-cost way to attract customers to the online shop.”

How important is it to have a good website when selling online?

MW: “Essential. We don’t have our own bricks and mortar stores, so it is both our shop and shopfront. We therefore try to make it both easy to use and easy on the eye. We used one agency for the original design and another to build the website, but we update it ourselves every day. We’re always looking to improve it and with more and more people now using their smart phones to access it, we’re increasingly concentrating on making the experience on mobile as good as possible. You can’t stand still online.”

The images on your website look fabulous, that’s really important isn’t it?

MW: “It really is when you’re selling online, especially clothes. We’ve always invested a lot in our imagery and I think our brand has become synonymous with beautiful photography. It’s all about creating something that’s aspirational yet accessible.”

How important is it for shoppers to find exactly what they want as quickly as possible?

MW: “Hugely important – particularly with more than half of all our site visitors now using mobile devices. Some people come to the site knowing exactly what they want and we need to make sure they can find it – and buy it – as easily as possible. Others come to browse, so we need to cater for them, too.”

How do you give customers extra confidence when buying from your website?

MW: “We offer free returns on all orders. That is a sign of confidence in our products, but also reassurance for first-time customers that they can easily send back anything they don’t like. On the security side, we’re fully PCI DSS-compliant so all customer payments are processed securely. We take our responsibility to our customers very seriously.”

Great customer service is essential, too…

MW: “It is. An email is no substitute for a phone call, so it’s hugely important to encourage customers to call if they have a question or issue. We’ve always had great people in our customer service team who know the collection and give honest advice. Our business is about relationships, not just sales.”

How do you attract customers to your website?

MW: “We send out paper catalogues; we advertise extensively on Facebook; we use Google AdWords; have affiliate and referral programmes. We do a lot of offline marketing through partnerships with like-minded brands, we open pop-up shops and we’ve done a couple of festivals. We use many methods.”

You also have a popular blog on your website?

MW: “We sort of had a blog before the word was widely used. We used to put books, film and music recommendations into our catalogues; we also sent out emails with things we’d come across and loved, so our blog’s grown out of that. It’s very much part of who we are and how we communicate with our customers. It helps, we hope, to maintain an emotional connection between us and our customers.”

What advice do you offer to someone interested in selling online?

MW: “We started in 2003, when things were much simpler. It’s much harder to get noticed these days, so think very carefully about how you’re going to attract people to your website. There’s no such thing as passing traffic online. Also look at your product and website through the eyes of potential customers. You know what you’re selling and why you think someone should buy it – but does that come across? Finally, make sure your personality comes through. A website is like a physical shop, you want customers to enjoy their visit. There are too many bland websites out there. Make sure yours isn’t one of them.”

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