Here, in an exclusive interview, Clare Jackson, director of Wooden Furniture Store shares her business story.
What exactly is the business?
The Wooden Furniture Store is an online retail store that offers high-quality, fully assembled furniture at competitive prices. We have all sorts of furniture styles available, from on trend contemporary grey painted, traditional oak, contemporary walnut and our newest line – reclaimed painted wood.
Whatever our customers are looking for, we believe they’ll find the perfect match with us. Our furniture is designed to be practical, usable and appeal to a wide audience; we offer pieces for all rooms in the home and our most popular lines are home office desks and shoe storage.
How was the business formed?
Back in 2008 I had a full time, very demanding role as a marketing director for one of the UK’s largest publishing companies. My particular area of focus was fashion and women’s lifestyle titles and a lot of what I was doing was related to the home interiors markets; an area that I always enjoyed and was inspired by.
Like many women, I reached the point at which I wanted to start a family and it was always my intention to return to work in publishing after maternity leave.
My first child was born with a range of additional needs and my husband Richard and I realised quite quickly that it may not be possible to simply slot back into my previous working life; I needed a job that offered flexibility with my working hours and time off when necessary.
Sadly, my old company wasn’t very accommodating and I struggled to find anything suitable. It became apparent that the best option under the circumstances would be to work for myself.
As Richard had experience in the web industry, it was quite likely to be an online business of some description and we were considering several options, but none of them really convinced us at the time.
I was fairly preoccupied with the house move we’d just made, but actually that was really when the idea for the business started to take shape.
Neither of us had much time to spend visiting loads of shops for furniture for our new home so we looked online. We spent an age trawling furniture websites looking for a TV cabinet and coffee table and were quite surprised by how frustrating we found the process.
We thought that there must be better way to make the process quicker and hassle free, so using our combined online, retail and marketing expertise, The Wooden Furniture Store was born.
How long did it take to get going?
Richard started building the website nine years ago and shortly after launch we started seeing a modest level of sales activity.
Once my youngest child started nursery, I started to get more involved in running the business and to make a real commitment to drive the business forward, investing time, effort and budget to see where we could take it.
What particular difficulties did you face?
Where to start? One aspect of running a small business (I’m sure anyone who has started their own businesses understands this only too well) is you have to learn quickly, and across a wide range of topics. So I’ve faced lots of situations that I’d not encountered before.
From spending too much time with traditional furniture suppliers that don’t understand web businesses, to receiving and recovering from Google penalties (who knew?) I’ve had a crash course in just about everything, from SEO to VAT and more.
I learnt that it’s really not a great idea to try and do everything yourself, as tempting as it may seem as a business owner, so don’t be afraid to ask or get help. An initial frustration for me was the speed at which we could get things done, as there were just the two of us managing the business and website.
So part of our investment was to draft in some external support and assistance (particularly around web development and promotion) and looking back, I wish we’d done that sooner than we did.
Today I embrace that fact we are ‘just big enough’; it can be a major advantage; compared to the mainstream furniture retail players. We’re pretty small and flexible so are able to try new things, learn and react quickly, take considered risks to keep us current and in step with our customers needs.
By experimenting in a safe-to-fail way we find out quickly what ideas and initiatives look like they might work (so are worth investing more time in to develop) or which of those ideas fail.
How’s it going so far this year?
We’ve had a very good start to 2017. Our website is performing well and the mobile-friendly site redesign we implemented last year has been key to this. We had identified that over 70 per cent of searches for The Wooden Furniture Store started on a mobile device, and so responding to this customer behaviour was critical.
The results so far are very promising; traffic YOY to the website is up by 106 per cent, and sales up 77 per cent (with the average order value increasing as well) so all the key measures are showing strong growth.
We’re investing in building our brand presence and have recently hired a new agency to help promote us online, and plan to add a dedicated PR agency as well as hiring an in-house social media specialist in 2017.
Another key goal for us in 2016 was to take steps to understand our customers and engage with them better. So today we make a point of speaking to as many of them in person as we can and as a result, know a lot more about them and their needs than ever before.
We also introduced a new customer help system to the website that means that browsing customers can ask questions in real time, and we can respond. This is another very effective way to learn about our customers, their browsing habits and the triggers that can help them to discover the right item and purchase.
One of the reasons customers buy from us in the first instance is that we really try to support and service them in a way that many online-only retailers don’t seem to. But this means there’s a balancing act for us is to continue this growth whilst maintaining the benefits of being a small company, with the personal customer care and attention we offer. We’ll also be expanding our ranges over the next year to offer customers more choice.
If you have any advice for others starting out, what would it be?
Understand your ‘why’.
Look carefully at how you can differentiate yourself from the competition and understand your market. It’s very possible to launch into an established market if you have something that differentiates you, and for us that focus has been on customer service.
We think it’s an area that many other online retailers (largely) fail at. Furniture purchases are not cheap or throw away and so we provide what customers are looking for – expert advice, considerate friendly delivery and exceptional customer service.
Learn quickly, fail safely and keep it simple!
To use the word ‘fail’ sounds a bit pessimistic, but actually I think it’s a positive thing. It really just means don’t make things too big, too complicated, time consuming or expensive to fail. Because if you do, and they fail – that’s painful.
If you are going to make mistakes (and who doesn’t), better to find out quickly and try something else instead. Learn from your failures and build quickly on your successes.
Try and make things (initially) as simple and small as possible. That way you are far more likely to make progress than trying to do too much, and there’s nothing more motivating than seeing progress.
If you could provide one inspirational quote, what would it be?
One of Richard’s favourite phrases (by Mark Twain) is that “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection” and it’s very true. There will always be things we (and any business) can do better, and I’ve learnt that not trying to do one big thing perfectly – instead constantly focusing on doing many smaller things just a bit better – has been the key to our progress so far.
I’m looking forward to lots more to come!