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STUDY: Small retail specialist takes plunge online

By Retail Technology | Monday September 23 2013

LIPS Paintball grows mature, niche bricks-and-mortar business with ongoing e-commerce technology investment

After 15 years running a physical shop in Hertfordshire, Chris Lacey [pictured] chose to take the plunge in 2003 and add an online store to his business, London International Paintball Supplies (LIPS Paintball). LIPS sells everything you need to do paintballing, from masks and protective clothing, to paint ball guns and ammunition.
 
Lacey realised that the products could be sold equally well online as over the counter. “Web-based shopping was just showing signs of being a helpful addition to our walk-in store and our event-based mobile shop, so I thought it was worth the investment.”

With minimal expenditure and hard work, Lacey had the lips-paintball.com website up and running very quickly. Since then the web has grown to represent 20-25% of his sales with most people finding the site via search engines.
 
“It took a lot of devotion and time, and was slow to get going.” Lacey explained. “At the time the concept [of e-commerce] was still very new and customers were very keen to ‘touch and feel’ a product before purchasing.”
 
From the start he chose a desktop e-commerce platform over a cloud-based solution, opting for SellerDeck (formerly Actinic Software). “I have embraced a lot of new technology in the last two to three years and the cloud is currently a step too far for me,” he added.
 
Lacey originally designed the website himself using one of the various templates within the software, but later employed Jenny Hanson, from Hanson Web Design to create a more sophisticated site when he upgraded to a newer version of the e-commerce software
 
Finding the keys to success
 
Founded in the late 1980s, LIPS Paintball has now been running for 24 years and since going online in 2003, overall sales are up 30-40%, which Lacey said is down to the internet and customers phoning in with orders after browsing.
 
One reason that the site has been a hit is that it is a classic example of a niche retailer. It’s focused on only selling products connected to the sport of paintballing that has an estimated 100,000 enthusiasts worldwide. The internet has helped this business go from selling out of a shop north of London, to gaining customers nationwide, as well as throughout Europe, the US, Asia, Africa and Australia.

The result is that the online channel is growing roughly 10% each year. “We couldn’t operate without e-commerce and there’s no doubt that we would be invisible without an internet presence," explained Lacey. "On the rare occasions that the server is down you can tell the difference in how busy we are of course with internet sales at zero, but the phone goes quiet as well.”
 
Optimised for Google
 
Another key to success is attracting the right visitors. Chris noticed that his Google results were dire, so although people became loyal customers once they found LIPS, he was limiting sales by not having a site optimised for search engines. He admitted: “I was absolutely nowhere. My site very rarely appeared on ‘page one’ for any products and certainly not for any of the major keywords or phrases. I suppose it would be fair to say that my business was to all intents and purposes invisible.”
 
Warned by friends and colleagues about getting fleeced by SEO cowboys, he turned to his ecommerce supplier for advice. “I knew that SellerDeck offered an SEO service and I decided to go with it as I was perfectly happy with the software and the support service that they had already provided to me.”
 
Having had his in-depth SEO assessment and recommendations, he began making some of the necessary changes. “I would say that within six weeks I was starting to appear on a couple of ‘page ones’ for my keywords and phrases and after three months I was appearing all over the place on page one for the majority of product pages I had amended.” Lacey also reports that site traffic has increased by 30%, and he’s taking around 25% more orders than before.
 
Building future plans
 
Lacey's aim for LIPS Paintball is to keep the site fresh with the latest products and innovations from around the world. He also plans to diversify into other specialist sports and is planning to hire more staff to keep up with the ever growing work load and to combat the seasonal peaks and troughs of running the business.
 
His advice to new e-commerce companies is:
- Don't start underfunded or your suppliers will be slow to ship to you
- Know your market and understand your customers
- Learn from your competitors but always try to have new ideas rather than just copying others
- Above all else, do not make false promises on your website.
 
And on SEO…
- Go with a recommended SEO consultant or agency, not one that comes cold-calling
- Don’t let up on working through the suggested improvements - you have to keep at it
- Know your business and be realistic on what needs to be achieved and how quickly.

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