Ella d’Amato is Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer at Not on the High Street, the ecommerce marketplace that supports 5,000 small creative businesses in the UK. She appeared at the Festival of Marketing to discuss how the pureplay reacted to the coronavirus crisis and relied on the agility of partners to innovate new products and expand into new categories.

ella d'amato not on the high street
Ella d’Amato, Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer, Not on the High Street. Image: Festival of Marketing

During the Festival of Marketing It was immediately clear the pride that Ella d’Amato, Chief Commercial and Marketing Officer, has in Not on the High Street’s small creative business community. Though she describes uncertainty in the wake of lockdown, saying they were “inundated with calls” and had to deal with an “emotional surge” from creators, d’Amato says their partners “rose like I’ve never ever known it”.

Agility in response to uncertainty

“What we saw was this huge demand that none of us actually predicted, because we’re not an essential buy… we’re predominantly gifting. …people were craving connection… in the height of lockdown when the shops were closed, birthdays were still happening, babies were still being born, anniversaries were still going on, so people were missing people and wanted to send them something that showed that they loved them and they were thinking of them.”

Key to responding to this surge in demand was what d’Amato describes as the “agility” of marketplace partners, allowing them to “pivot” and “product innovate like I’ve never seen”.

Search data and product innovation

This product innovation was fuelled by customer insight and rapid and frequent communication with partners.

“For small businesses,” d’Amato remarked, “it was about giving them data, what are we seeing come through on the site, what are customers searching for, how is [their] behaviour changing. And we were talking to [partners] daily and weekly, and they would take that data and… product innovate…”

d’Amato gives a number of examples where demand increased and was met remarkably rapidly, notably rainbows, ‘hugs’ and face masks.

“When everyone was getting behind the NHS with the rainbows and the [weekly] clapping, we saw searches for rainbow products go through the roof. So we told the partners and within 24 hours there were 150 new rainbow products on the site. Make your own rainbow kit, rainbow you could stick on the wall, rainbow necklaces, you name it, if it had a rainbow, our partners came up with it.”

Hugs was a trend that summed up the mood during lockdown. Though the word itself would seem rather too figurative to type into a product search bar, d’Amato says shoppers were doing exactly that.

“People were literally typing in the word ‘hug’ in our search bar. It actually still gives me goosebumps because there was this [feeling of] ‘I miss people’. Again, we told the partners, and they rose to the challenge.”

Face masks was another huge search trend and d’Amato describes how the ecommerce company felt a “duty” to do something to help. “So we went out to our community, we dropped our commission significantly and said ‘we’ve got to do this, make them, we’ll support it, we’ll put it in marketing, you’ll make money but please do this for our customers.”

“Now,” d’Amato says, “there are is a range of over 500 that was [on sale] before any retailer because of the small business agility and the way they can product innovate.”

Expansion into new categories

It’s well known that certain retail categories boomed in lockdown and beyond, athleisure wear being noted most often. The same is true at Not on the High Steet, and has been made possible not just by the aforementioned speed of their partners, but also their ingenuity.

“It’s not just that they’re small businesses [and can be agile] but that they’re so creative, the two things together has made us able to stand out in the market and fulfil customer needs like we never have before. And for the business it has shown the breadth of our offer… when everybody started to invest in home offices and their gardens, [amidst] the surge of staycations, we have seen this [increase] in sales… gardens is up 450% year on year. People suddenly are treating their gardens as an extension of their home.”

d’Amato also says the marketplace has seen “food and drink up hundreds of percent, where people couldn’t either get things and tried Not on the High Street, and also wanting to send… treats as gifts.”

“The business has used that agility,” she continues, “to not only do what we do really well, which is gifting, but also expand into new categories for self-purchase at a rate that would have taken us a lot longer before.”

Customer experience – matching on-site to comms promise

Beyond product, d’Amato touched on how website content has changed since lockdown, seeking to match messaging to a revised comms plan.

“When it all hit, we got together as a team and within 24 hours we rewrote all of our comms plans and content plans which was a big ask, and I’m sure every marketing dept did the same. But we wrote some pillars that we wanted to stay true to, so above everything else we wanted to support small businesses and give them a platform, we wanted to show proper empathy towards what people were going through, and to show agility to be able to react.

“What was super important is that we matched that experience on site. We worked… closely with tech and digital product teams to make sure the customer was really well informed. …there was a big [emphasis] on delivery and what might happen with delivery. You’re working with small businesses – a lot of them rely on our postal service that was inundated, so it was about making sure throughout the purchase funnel on site there was enough information for the customer that they felt informed that when they were going to get their product… giving them the reassurance that this was safe, [and] our partners had taken the necessary precautions.”

d’Amato adds that this work required daily standups with tech partners, with productivity high even during remote working.

The ‘small business army’

d’Amato is effusive in her praise for the small independent partners she works with, pointing out that practically, they were well positioned to react to the pandemic, because “60% of them already worked from home”.

“I’ve always known we were sat on this amazing community of creativity but as I said, they have wowed me with how fast they have been able to move and deal with really different product types that have been needed. They still have had [their own] supply issues down the line… they’ve managed to [overcome that] through close relationships with their supply chain.”

Though she admits it was “scary at the beginning”, requiring “a lot of work to support [partner] small businesses”, she says “I’m so proud of them actually, they’ve been… heroes in the background and been able to help customers stay connected to people.”

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