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Why an online vape shop CEO went back to the warehouse floor

I believe in experience for the consumer, obviously a good one. But it’s critical and I think so many businesses have an approach to retail that’s little more than being a vending machine. They don’t value the ethereal moment before money changes hands. It’s why so many businesses fail to survive in tough times; they don’t have a fan club.

For Vape and Juice, I put an ever-improving experience at our heart, I think it’s why we are still here 7 years later.

Nothing prepares you for a pandemic

As an ecig retailer that did most of our sales offline in our bricks and mortar estate, the Government lockdown of non-essential stores was obviously a real worry. Our online vape shop sales accounted for a few percent of total turnover and then overnight our traffic rocketed. While this was a nice safety net, the business had never spent too long looking at order fulfilment and that meant we just weren’t prepared. With staff working from home and others in isolation, you just have to pull up your sleeves and get stuck in.

I always say that as a business owner you need to navigate not steer. When you run a business, you have to be able to plan ahead and you can’t do that if you are watching every turn and bump. Sometimes though necessity dictates. For us, that has turned into a real opportunity to improve the business.

We talk about offline retail being experiential, as if online can’t care too

A lot of people set up their website to just be cheaper than the next person, it’s only the very few players that truly offer great customer experience. The amount of businesses you ask what their core values are, and they look you blankly. Or if you ask them “What’s great about your business?” you get the same answer about caring for customers. Few of them will ever evidence what they recently did to demonstrate that.

Just because you are online, it doesn’t mean you can’t think about how to be better. I always tell my shop staff, stand where the customer stands and look at your store. Does everything seem right?

Too often, we are looking out from the counter. Everything, when you stand there looks better, than the mess of wires and till roll under the desk.

Our stores have always followed a local shop model. From our vape nights, or launch parties, to sponsoring local sports teams and working with other local businesses. Trying to be a feature of a community and becoming immersed in it, definitely helps build local brand loyalty. So we have tried to do the same online. You won’t find a bot on our webchat, because you don’t find them in our vape shops.

Shopping with us is just like ordering a pizza really, just less fattening

But it’s from being stuck in the warehouse packing envelopes during this time, where we really learned to be smarter. I was getting hammered on the webchat while trying to pack envelopes and the questions are the same very often. So for me it didn’t too long before we spotted how we can nip a couple of those FAQs in the bud.

These days customers want immediate answers, not a link to a page of common questions. This has led to us implementing live tracking when someone buys from Vape and Juice. They are notified when their order is being made ready and watch the GPS to delivery. Shopping with us is just like ordering a pizza really, just less fattening.

There’s advantages of that too, you can use the tracking pages to share messages or special offers to those customers as well. You kill two birds with one stone. Our web chat rapidly got less busy with that question, people were more satisfied and we get a little marketing done. It means happier customers and a higher retention.

It doesn’t take a lot to ruin a relationship and it can happen for the smallest things. Adding smarter technology to their shopping experience might seem expensive at first, but the labour save and the return on investment is almost immediate.

Don’t try to be everything to everyone

One of the other issues that we faced during our spell in the trenches is the impact it has on other roles we occupy. Our operations director Fred has gone from creating sales reports to printing out labels or queuing at the Post Office, I meanwhile do much of the online marketing. Trying to juggle a home life and a deluge of business with less staff, meant email marketing takes a bit of a back seat.

Again, technology can really help out here. Our tracking software for deliveries is partnered with an email automation tool which has turned out to be more than just a time saver. It’s more efficient than I could ever be. Our emails now are bespoke and targeted based on the buyer’s order history. So if you order a product that lasts two weeks, you will get an email with that item in your basket in 10 days asking if you want a top up at a saving. And it works. Plus it saves them having to remember too late, or having to try to find what they got last time again. It’s a slick experience for the customer and for us.

While I’m talking email marketing

If I’ve got one marketing tip I could share to small business owners, it’s this.

I’ve always seen the sense in being personal to the reader. If you aren’t personalising, you’re just taking a chance you get the right person on the right day. If I stood in the High Street saying the same sentence to 100 people, the reality is I’d look mad 99% of the time.

It’s the knock on as many doors approach. Google doesn’t like that and low conversion rates, low open rates, mean next time you send the email, you may go in the spam box. You are 8 times more likely to be opened if you land in the inbox than the spam. It’s important to care about what you send out.

This whole numbers game approach is only part of the equation. Back to me bellowing in the High Street and looking mad 99% of the time; imagine if you could look mad only 89% of the time?

Admittedly we are all mad if we are working in retail and run our own businesses – but it’s about being less insane.

Try to be everything to everyone, and you will be something to no-one. That’s the mistake a lot of lazy marketers make.

Sending out an email with a sales offer thinking that everyone will go for it. Not everyone is purely price sensitive.

Our best converting email was at the point of pandemic lockdown just telling our customers we will still be open for business online. No discounts needed.

So important to think about what your customers would open and not only on what you’re trying to get out of it. If it means making two, three or four email each time, so be it. You will likely see the same corresponding increase in results too.

Anyway, I’ve left the Vape and Juice packing table too long. Sometimes it’s good to navigate, but sometimes it’s okay to steer. Otherwise how else would you know you could get there smoother?

Mason is the founder of Vape and Juice an electronic cigarette chain and regular blogger on all things startup marketing related.

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Twitter: @the_mobshow