Amplebosom.com caters for women who need large bras. Farmer's wife Sally Robinson set up the site with £7500 from an EC farm diversification grant, which is available to farmers who are unable to diversify their farming activities because of the nature or size of their land.
In the spring of 1999 Robinson decided to sell bras after having considered and rejected selling garden furniture and jewellery. She likens bras to CDs and books, currently the best-selling ecommerce items. "They are light to post and go through a letterbox," she explained. "And yet they are not time sensitive like other fashion items."
Robinson discovered that, at that time, there were no other comparable websites. "There were bras with holes in and feathers, and bras for belly dancers, but you couldn't get anything for ordinary people, and to a certain extent that is still true," she said.
The site aims to offer its customers a broader selection of attractive, brand name bras in larger sizes than are available in all but the biggest department stores. Since it went live in November 1999, Robinson has taken on four staff to deal with orders coming in from around the world.
The process of applying for the grant to set up the site took six months. To be eligible the applicant must live on a farm and be part of a family that derives its income solely from farming. The applicant needs to produce an agricultural 'holding number'. If successful they are awarded a proportion of what they will need - the award panel decides on how much is appropriate.
The business is run using two networked PCs and a standalone PC that is dedicated to the website. The site is based on Actinic Catalog software, which displays the 2000-plus lines from the likes of Triumph and Berlei. The Catalog software alerts Robinson when an order has been placed and whether or not it has been paid for. The average order value is £45 and amplebosom.com processes an average of 30 orders a day.
Robinson explained that she wanted a site which mimicked the catalogues women are familiar with. "I don't like sites that have no edges and I believe people will scroll down on a page they are interested in," she said.
But Robinson has struggled to persuade bra suppliers to meet her vision of an online business, as amplebosom.com is forced to hold stock to meet the next-day delivery expectation of internet purchasers. "We have difficulty getting stock in. The manufacturers want forward orders, but I can't predict for that," she said.
The company also produces a paper catalogue, sales from which account for half the turnover of the business, but a far larger proportion of the overheads. Robinson explained that the marketing element of the paper catalogue cannot be quantified - a mother might hand the catalogue to a daughter who orders via the internet, for example.
Robinson has marketed the website through press and publicity, using events as a springboard for promotion. She cites the example of when she had coloured packaging printed with 'amplebosom.com'. She heard that there had been complaints about this but turned it to her advantage by issuing a press release about the postmen's objections that led to her appearing on local TV.
She does not monitor the site's hit rates, but acknowledges that not all her visitors are women in search of a well fitting bra. She keeps in mind the bigger picture: "If I can do £250,000 turnover a year then it will tick."
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