Retailers of camping and outdoors equipment have traditionally been small chains or one-shop family operations serving their local areas. The sector has been hit by a bout of extreme competitiveness recently, and an increasing number of cut-price and web-only operations have entered the fray.
Tony Meikle runs the Wildspirit website and retail outlet with his wife, selling specialist outdoor clothing and equipment. "We had a straightforward retail store for ten years before I decided to set up a web presence. We had two shops in the Alnwick, Northumberland area but we closed one in favour of developing the web presence."
"When you're a bit older, as I am, you worry that the world will pass you by," says Meikle. "I tend to react to that by going in the opposite direction and pitching in there."
Wildspirit was launched in 1996, when relatively few SMEs had begun to venture on to the web. Meikle built the site himself, using Hot Metal Pro, the cutting edge technology in 1996.
"I tend to write web pages in HTML now as it's the only way to get real flexibility," he says. The site has, by necessity, developed "haphazardly", he admitted.
"This is not the way I would have liked it to develop, but you do need time, and when you're a small business, you haven't got that."
He says he has considered getting outside help to build and run the site but he feels it would be too expensive. "You're looking at £500 - at least - for a reasonable basic site," he says.
He has already set up a virtual server operation but is adopting a 'wait and see' approach to developing the site further. He believes the recent burnout in the dotcoms sector indicates that there is a limit to how much trade will be done over the internet.
This time, it's personal
Meilkle firmly believes the personal touch will be what wins the business in his sector. "It's very specialist and people want to talk about what they're buying. People will use email," he says, but he feels there is a reluctance to buy online.
He has written all the software needed to offer an online trading facility but is holding off implementing it until customers indicate they would be happy to use such a system.
He is also wary of the stockholding that would be required to fulfil an extended online trading site. "You would have to carry a pretty vast stock to make sure you can do the business, and it all comes down to money," he says. However, he sees online trading as inevitable. "Ten years ago I didn't take credit cards. Online trading will come in the next year."
High and low
He says the outdoor equipment sector is definitely getting more competitive but he believes this is an extension of what is happening on the high street rather than increased competition from cut-price websites. "People are giving things away; sales are much more genuine. We operate on tiny margins compared to, say, fashion," he says.
Meikle believes his website is definitely giving his 100sq ft Northumberland shop a national presence and reputation. "Our customer base now extends right down to Plymouth. We also sell quite a lot to the United States, they are great internet purchasers there. Very few of the other sites in the outdoor sector will export to the US or New Zealand, but we're quite willing to do that."
He says business from the site is growing all the time. He has set out to monitor the activity by placing counters at various positions on the site, although he lacks the time to closely analyse the resulting statistics. The site averages 50 or 60 hits a day, with a wide seasonal variation - hits increase substantially on a fine day.
Meikle comments that 50/60 hits a day leads to a measurable increase in business for a small shop in the North East of England: "One per cent of visitors make significant purchases of £200 to £300, and that starts to feature on the balance sheet."
Meikle plans to retire in a year or two, but says until then he will be developing his business on the web. "The secret is total flexibility. You have to be prepared to jump in all directions, without going too mad."
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