Anyone starting a business during a recession is in for a rocky ride. But with high quality products, clever marketing and top-notch customer service, Farm Toys Online has proved to be a successful enterprise for owner Julia Lowe. Rachel Miller finds out more
Running any retail business calls for some serious multi-tasking. When it's an online operation, you also need to factor in deliveries - potentially one of the biggest headaches of all - as well as some serious marketing to bring people to your ecommerce website.
Julia Lowe started Farm Toys Online back in 2008, just as recession was looming. She certainly had the right skills - she had previously managed an educational farm, and also ran a website design business. "With Farm Toys Online I was able to put into practice what I had been preaching," she says.
At the heart of the business is a range of high quality farm toys that appeal to kids and their parents - everything from puzzles to ride-on tractors. The idea is to source products that are more realistic than most farm toys, but not as complex and pricey as the exact replica models on the market.
But how has the business fared? "If you start in a recession, things can only go up," says Julia. "Business went well in our first year, and we doubled our turnover every year after that. We had to move into a bigger warehouse, and I recruited staff to work with me."
There are a few key reasons for that success, not least the quality of the products themselves. "Even when times are hard, one of the last things to go is presents for children," says Julia. "But it's also about selling things that are well-made and that meet expectations. When someone is buying over the internet, there's nothing more disappointing than getting a really nasty plastic toy."
In fact, Julia tried introducing cheaper stocking fillers before Christmas one year, but they just didn't sell. "People are after quality," says Julia. The best sellers are model tractors, remote-control tractors and ride-on tractors.
Not surprisingly, Christmas is a crucial selling period - Farm Toys Online can sell 65% of its annual turnover in the weeks leading up to Christmas. With customer service at the heart of the business, they had to make sure every single order was delivered on time. "Delivery was a nightmare," Julia reveals. "We were using a courier company, but they just couldn't cope and it went into meltdown. Luckily we had a plan B - ParcelForce. It's more expensive, but it's unbelievably reliable."
Anticipating demand and ordering the right stock is vital. "We have lots of different suppliers, mainly in the UK, and we hold most of the stock ourselves, apart from the big ride-on tractors," explains Julia. "We work closely with our suppliers. There's a lot of flexibility and we can react to demand quickly."
Getting the right marketing mix
Running any ecommerce business calls for the right marketing mix. "All of the marketing methods we use are driving the business forward," says Julia. "They are all important parts of our strategy." Those techniques include:
"What's more, the Farm Toys Online website allows customers to review products and service - helping to drive word of mouth recommendation.
Julia also sells on Amazon and eBay. "It's not cheap - you pay a lot of commission, especially on Amazon," she says. "But they are massive shop windows." All the same, the majority of orders (60%) come via the Farm Toys Online website. About 30% of sales are made through Amazon, and eBay accounts for the rest.
A lot of customers get reassurance from buying products on an established website like Amazon, says Julia. "People can get confused when they're online, and often have questions. That's why we make sure we are always here at the end of a phone, so people can ring up and find out more about our products."
Balancing work with life
Being a mum of three, Julia's kids play a crucial part in helping to test and select the toys that she sells. "My kids are a huge part of my life and running this type of business allows me to spend time with them, whether it's during the holidays, or seeing them playing sports or in a play at school."
"I'd say that juggling Farm Toys Online with spending time with my family has made me concentrate on getting everything right," says Julia. "It has been good for business."