Interview: Ally Dowsing-Reynolds
Like many other retailers that started out as online-only businesses, the interiors specialist Dowsing & Reynolds has ultimately succumbed to the temptation of running a physical store.
Ally Dowsing-Reynolds, co-founder of Yorkshire-based Dowsing & Reynolds, says: “Opening a shop has always been on the cards. The website is great – with 360 degree photos and videos – but it is nothing compared to being able to touch and feel the products [in a store].”
Nothing compares to a physical store
The opening of its 2,165 square foot outlet on two levels within Victoria Quarter’s County Arcade in Leeds alongside swish brands like Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton, is bricks & mortar proof of the progress the brand has made since it accidentally came into being seven years ago.
Ally’s husband James had been running garden centres as well buying and selling liquidated stock before deciding to do something more creative and less stressful. This led him to sculpture and using concrete as his preferred material.
“I spotted a concrete lamp fitting and told him to try this and he went with it,” says Dowsing-Reynolds, adding that he chose to use some smart light bulbs that required him buying them in bulk batch from China. The excess bulbs were sold on eBay and such was the level of demand that he bought some more and again there was an incredible appetite for them, which led him to buy a variety of types of bulb.
Broadening the range
Once Dowsing- Reynolds built him a website and enabled the products to be showcased properly then the sale of bulbs progressed into a home interiors brand: “We broadened the range on the website and I started working for the business one day per week.”
Rather than taking the obvious route of branching into textiles – “the fluffier side of things” – she was determined to stand out from the crowd by focusing on fittings. But choosing items that were striking and incorporating interesting details.
“These are often the overlooked parts [of home décor] – being merely about function and utility. We wanted to turn the boring things into statements. You don’t have to have white plug sockets,” explains Dowsing-Reynolds.
Focusing on own-brand
The majority of goods are own-brand, being sourced from around the world, with Dowsing & Reynolds designing the lines and the manufacturers then creating the moulds. Sometimes as a test to determine the level of demand for certain product types she says off-the-shelf items will sometimes be made available.
The product mix has attracted residential shoppers – who account for 75-80% of sales – and the remainder are derived from commercial customers such as designers and architects. “It’s a wide variety of customers – from those looking for a decorative plug or a dimmer, to those renovating a whole home or a second home, or an Airbnb etcetera,” says Dowsing-Reynolds.
The business grew successfully online and the digital marketing was doing well in attracting new customers and building loyalty. Her background working previously at a digital strategy agency played a vital role: “We had always been good at SEO. It’s our biggest driver of sales – just by having good content and good website structure.”
Keeping SEO simple
She argues that far too many people try to be too clever with their digital marketing and should instead focus on creating an easy structure for consumers to use and for search engines to navigate around. “The vast majority of benefit is from optimising product and category pages as well as having good products that people want to write about,” says Dowsing-Reynolds.
Against this backdrop, there was no real need to add a physical store in order to grow Dowsing & Reynolds as a brand but she says she instinctively knew that it would be a good support for the online operation.
But it was still uncertain exactly what it would actually bring to the mix. There was also uncertainly about its location. “We looked at London as 55% of our customers are in Central London (zones 1, 2 and 3). But it’s a big place and we knew it was a risk for a first store because it is a two-hour train ride from Leeds if anything goes wrong,” she says, adding that the decision was therefore to go with Leeds where a mere 1.5% of its customers are based.
Leeds beats London
“We knew logistically it would be easier but that the marketing would be harder. We thought we’d have to see if the market was big enough in Leeds,” explains Dowsing-Reynolds.
Since the store’s opening on September 26 three key metrics have been measured: in-store sales; showrooming activity that leads to online sales; and the halo effect of having a multi-channel business with the knowledge that shoppers who buy from more than one channel are typically more valuable shoppers.
To date she says the measures are all going very well – with direct sales in-store “higher than expected”. The other major benefit of the store is the ability to closely observe customer behavior. “We can look at how people use the store and listen to our customers. It’s all about tweaking and adjusting [the proposition] to give a good experience, says Dowsing-Reynolds.
As she continues to play around with the store the one big advantage that Dowsing & Reynolds, along with the other online players who have also added outlets, is that unlike the traditional retailers the company is building its business by benefiting from having “thrown out the rule book”.
Words by Glynn Davis.
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