The Simply Group operates seven e-commerce sites in the UK, from SimplyScuba, to the recently relaunched SimplyBeach.

I’ve been talking to founder Gerrard Dennis about the challenges of running seven separate sites…

How long have you been operating?

We started out in 1995 with the Scuba shop and, around 2000, we decided to branch out into other avenues, feeling that specialising in just scuba gear left us too exposed to possible changes in the market.

By offering ski gear as well as scuba, we were covering all year round in terms of leisure activities, and we have continued to add more since then.

How long have you sold online?

The business was started from a tiny shop, until I went to a seminar which was arranged by a supplier. One of the speakers gave a presentation on the world wide web, which was then in its early stages. One thing he said that stuck with me was that you could have a billion customers online, especially since I was running a shop where ten orders a week was a good result.

So we launched SimplyScuba as a catalogue website, and gradually got more and more enquiries and orders from customers. A year later a company we were using for the website came to us and offered us the opportunity to launch their first e-commerce site. This was £1,000, a large sum of money for us at the time, but we decided to go ahead with it.

It worked well though, and within a year or two, we had five containers full of stock for the online business. There were only three of us at the time, and we packed all the order ourselves, keeping the local post office in business…

When did it start to take off?

We had a lot of traffic to the scuba store early on, since we were the only retailer offering this equipment online, though it took two or three years to really get going. The whole thing was run out of the cashflow anyway, so growth was an organic thing.

We have had some tremendous growth over the last couple of years, though we have always been limited by the costs of going up to the next level. Our Achilles heel is our strength in some ways. When we do something on one site, we have to do it seven times. However, we have sites that appeal to very different audiences.

Have you considered joining up the sites? How integrated are they?

This has been considered, but we find that our customers are very different from site to site. For example, the beach site has a different look and feel than the rest, and people shop for beachwear differently to scuba gear or ski equipment.

On the scuba site, a lot of technical information is required, while beachwear is more of a fashion purchase, it’s all about how it looks on the beach.

All of the sites had the scuba site’s template until a year ago, but we decided to move all seven sites onto separate code bases. You can take your shopping basket across the stores though, and pay through items from one single checkout.

We try to maximise cross-selling opportunities , and we spend a lot of time on email marketing, letting our customers know about the different sites.

Is the site designed and maintained in-house?

Yes, all in-house. We have been learning as we have gone along. We have a team of 23, which is still relatively small scale. I think it’s an advantage that, as a small company, we can move quickly and make changes when necessary, without needing a committee meeting.

Does having a number of sites allow you to make changes and test on just one site, before rolling it out for the rest?

Yes, we tend to pick one site, often a high traffic site, and test changes out to see the changes in conversion rates and get some customer feedback. Though for some ideas that we’re less sure about, we’ll test on one of the quieter sites…

You introduced iPhone apps recently, how have they performed so far?

We’ve had some good feedback on that so far. We decided to do it because we felt that people are moving more into mobile. I notice more and more people using their iPhones on trains at the moment, so I thought this would be a good place to start.

So far, we’ve seen some great figures in terms of downloads, some good traffic, as well as promising feedback from users. There’s also a second version coming soon.

The app sends users to the desktop checkout process, have you considered a mobile version?

We did, but developing a mobile checkout was a lot more expensive, and since we were testing the ground with this app, we decided against it. It’s not ideal, but it will work if people want to buy on their mobiles.

I suspected that more people would use it for browsing, so it’s a tentative step forwards. Perhaps in a future version we do we will have a proper mobile checkout.

We’ve had quite a few sales though, especially since the original remit was not to make a mobile shop, we figured that the publicity we got from the app was the main thing, and we have recouped the costs of the development from a marketing perspective.

How are you using social media?

We have Twitter accounts for six of the seven stores, as well as Facebook pages and blogs. We launched the blogs as a test a couple of years ago. In retrospect, we should have done it differently. We took advice recently and were told it was too much like advertising, so this is something we are working on.

I notice you have a live chat option, which not many UK sites do at the moment. Has it been popular with customers?

It’s on during working hours, and our customer services team have it running on their PCs. They respond straight away during the day, and customers can leave messages at other times.

Customers do use it a lot, sometimes they have a little question, and it saves time writing an email and guarantees an instant answer. Most companies don’t respond to emails quickly enough anyway.

How has the recession affected business this year?

Touch wood, we have been up month on month for the last three years, and have been meeting predicted growth levels all year.

We did worry about it, wondering what we would do if sales dropped by 25%. Would we have to lay off staff? Thankfully, we haven’t had to make this decision.

What developments are planned for the site over the next 12 months?

Recently, we’ve opened our own photographic and video studios so we can produce our own images for the websites. We’ve started adding more videos to product pages, something you can see on the new SimplyBeach site, we’ll have 360 views of products as well.

One thing someone told me is to think of your web page as a salesman, and the only tools you have to sell products are what are there on the page. This is a great analogy, and so you have to have everything on the page that customers will need.

E-commerce is about more than just price, and you have to move forward. It’s all about bringing back returning customers. It’s a lot easier to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones.

We think we are doing well on this score, we run a feedback system, across the site, and our customers rate us at 96%. This means there are 4% to work on, but we’re pleased with this score.