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The power of ecommerce: selling the 21st century

By Gillian Crawford - Posted on 7 October 2020

Wanting to run a successful ecommerce website, businesswoman Gillian Crawford realised that a community of ecommerce leaders was needed - and the Institute for Ecommerce was born. Gillian talks about her journey and the start of an ecommerce scaleup course at Strathclyde.

My ecommerce eureka moment came at a trade show at Glasgow’s SECC in September 2015. As a trickle of exhausted buyers trudged by, laden with literature, it struck me that this method of doing business had barely changed in 70 years. There had to be a better way of selling the 21st century.

Not long afterwards, the opportunity to buy out my business partner gave me the opening to try something new. We already had a website but, in common with many small businesses, ours was underperforming.

Repeated attempts to outsource our Search Engine Optimisation had failed spectacularly and we had become resigned to the idea that the website was merely a “shop window”. A career in national newspapers had taught me the power of digital and so in the months following the buyout I sat up into the wee hours learning everything I could about the way a successful ecommerce website operates.

I really wanted to do my best for my business which has taken inspiration from my grandmother Lily Blanche Sheridan. I have fond childhood memories of rummaging through her jewellery and finding beautiful, exotic pieces. Lily Blanche takes vintage designs and gives them a modern twist, and I wanted to give my business a twist into the world of ecommerce and help it grow into the future.

My research took me to American blogs, vlogs and podcasts. Across the Atlantic was a coterie of ecommerce experts proselytising about harnessing the power of the web to connect with customers. All I had to do was find their Scottish equivalents.

I kept drawing blanks. The problem was I didn’t know what I didn’t know but I was pretty certain that the digital marketing experts I was engaging with - who were offering two tweets a day and desultory blog post once a month - were not going to turbo charge my online sales. The business advisers I met all extoled the power of the web, but few had any in-depth knowledge.

By 2019, using the techniques I was learning from America, our ecommerce sales were climbing and the split of B2C to B2B business had completely changed. Now 90% of our orders were on the website. But I was still making mistakes and there were huge gaps in my knowledge.

A chance meeting in 2019 with Dr Peter Mowforth of Indez and Emil Stickland, who had worked on Rubik’s Cube’s ecommerce sites, led to a discussion about an Institute of Ecommerce for Scotland. It was an opportunity to bring together a community of ecommerce practitioners.

More importantly, it was a chance to help futureproof the Scottish economy. With ecommerce worth £688bn to the UK economy in 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics, up 18% in a year, Scotland’s share ought to be £55bn but nobody could find more than £2bn in Scottish ecommerce sales. As online shopping proliferated, the money that used to stay in the locality when we shopped on the high street was draining out of Scotland to Manchester and London where the ecommerce hubs were.

The most pressing issue was the need for training. No comprehensive course existed in Scotland. Having completed the superb Growth Advantage Programme for entrepreneurs at the University of Strathclyde Business School, it struck me that the model, dynamism, and expertise that Strathclyde offered made it the perfect partner.

John Anderson, the programme director for GAP, immediately saw the potential of an ecommerce scale-up course and was generous with his help and advice. With Strathclyde Business School on board as an academic partner for the fledgling Institute of Ecommerce, doors began to open.

Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland funded the pilot course, and in January 2020, 20 of Scotland’s most experienced ecommerce managers gathered at the Cathedral Street campus for a course masterminded and taught by Dr John McSloy of Indez. The peer-to-peer learning was a vital part of the course which was a comprehensive overview of all things ecommerce but with sufficient depth and focus on the diverse ecommerce businesses represented in the room to be of real value to everyone.

Dr McSloy, supported by a series of expert guest lecturers including senior figures from Google, Big Commerce and Dot Digital, refused to let the pandemic put him off his stride. With the two Johns working behind the scene, the course moved seamlessly online.

The course could not have come at a better time for us. The training prevented us from making costly mistakes as the business geared up for the surge in online shopping which came as a result of Covid. Sales at lilyblanche.com are up 46% on the previous year since lockdown. In addition, we learned what was working for the others in the group.

It has been one of the most valuable trainings we have done. We now have a highly active Scottish ecommerce group, sharing ideas, tips and the occasional joke. Strathclyde Business School has cemented its reputation at the cutting edge of entrepreneurial training. It is, indeed, a place of very useful learning.



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