How £12m business North Laine Accessories scales customer support
Laptop cases, satnav mounts, camera bags, premium smartphone covers – you name it, North Laine Accessories sells it.
Based in Lancing, England, North Laine Accessories started in 2007 and quickly grew its revenue from £30k to £5m in just three years.
“About 50 percent of our business is bricks and mortar and 50 percent is online”, managing director Gareth Halford explains. “We sell in stores such as Tesco, Halfords and Aldi. We also sell on multiple Amazon channels including the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Japan, as well as Price Minister, CDiscount, Halfords Marketplace and Fnac.”
Through its two brands, North Laine sells to two markets. Navitech sells everyday accessories to all ages, while Broonel is a luxury brand primarily aimed at men.
From humble beginnings in a small office used for both staff and storage, North Laine quickly became one of the fastest growing sellers in the UK.
Gareth initially sold a small range of GPS accessories, like mounts and cases for Garmin and TomTom; before expanding into mobile accessories, covers and cases, wearables, drones and virtual reality accessories.
“We have followed the trends about consumer electronics, and that has gotten us to where we are now”.
The rapid rise of North Laine Accessories in the UK eCommerce industry didn’t go unnoticed.
“We made Richard Branson’s Virgin Top 250 list of fastest growing startup companies in the UK in 2011”, explains Gareth,“and we were also voted by Lloyds as the best new startup in the South. It was a crazy couple of years.”
How North Laine built its own brands
Gareth regularly attends trade shows in China to develop relationships with suppliers and to see the latest accessories in development.
“We design our Navitech and Broonel products here in the UK. We then go to trade shows in China. We meet a supplier and then explain what we do. Then we look to build new designs or adapt existing designs they’ve already got.”
Gareth says he become much more selective in how he chooses products to sell, as the accessories market has tightened its spend in recent years.
“Back when times were good five or six years ago, you could almost list a product without a pitch and it would sell. The trick now is that you have to really, really look for the right product.
In highly competitive sector where millions of similar products are sold, Gareth focuses on the potential net margin per product to cut the wheat from the chaff.
“We’ve found that the key thing is not to offer an off-the-shelf product anymore because we find there’s no niche or margin doing that. Now, you have to really, really look for the right product.”
Before choosing to design and sell a product, Gareth looks for the following criteria:
- Can he charge a minimum of £30 for that product?
- Is there a market there for it?
- Is the quality good?
- Is it actually going to be used regularly by the consumer?
Once he finds a product that meets these standards, Gareth then focuses on brand fit.
“The product also has to fit within the brand name and styles we’ve got. It’s not just as simple as selling a bin one week and a satnav case the next. We have to always stick to quality consumer electronics accessories.”
Amazon – the ultimate testing ground
Marketplaces play a crucial role in Gareth’s business for two reasons – sales and market research.
“Marketplace sales account for about half of our business now. Amazon is fantastic because you’ve got a great platform not just to sell on, but to test if there’s a market.. If you can sell a retail-ready product for £40-£50 on the most competitive marketplace in the world, you know bloody well it’s going to sell in a bricks and mortar store.”
We’re all about keeping the retail price solid. We’re not a company that will sit there and bash out listings to make 50p. It’s definitely about maintaining a retail price and maintaining a margin.
Rebalancing the scales
As well as growing its revenue to over £5m by 2010, North Laine has also grown its staff from three to 20 people.
As the business continued to grow at a fast rate, scaling customer support became an issue.
“We used to have a customer support team with speakers of many different languages to support our customers and marketplaces in various countries. But we realised our large customer support team was prohibitively expensive, as it was stopping us from spending on marketing.”
“We saw sales drop and wages increase, so we had to take a big u-turn on how we managed customer support. We found ourselves going from over 20 staff back down to seven core employees.”
The North Laine team had to come up with a way to manage an increasing customer base with fewer support agents to draw upon.
“We all sat around a table and said, ‘we’ve hardly any staff here, we’ve got to rethink what we’re doing’. We needed to be able to handle customer support in multiple countries with fewer staff. We needed translation capabilities without the hassle of copying and pasting translated responses into every single email. We needed to be able to manage customer support quickly and easily.”
Changing the eCommerce customer support game
Gareth reduced the size of his support team, but North Laine’s queue of support tickets didn’t get any shorter. He needed a solution to help his team scale eCommerce customer support.
“We realised that we’d actually been doing things the wrong way for a long time when it came to customer support by having so many agents to handle each sales channel. As soon as we moved on to xSellco Fusion, we found that customer queries became very manageable.”
Instead of managing multiple sales channels, North Laine now manages all customer support in one inbox – xSellco Fusion.
Gareth says being able to manage multichannel customer support more efficiently has led to a better customer experience.
“We’ve seen feedback go up. We’ve been hitting 100% positive feedback since we’ve started using xSellco Fusion. Our Amazon feedback is now at 100% which was previously – for us – unheard of.”
Gareth says his customer support agents never waste time responding to the same ticket twice anymore.
“Having a customer service rep being able to receive and answer all messages in one place is wonderful. We find that xSellco Fusion is a time-saving platform that allows us to make sure that we’re not all answering the same query at once.”
Going the extra mile
Having order details, delivery and sales information next to each query on a clean interface has made support agents’ jobs more enjoyable, according to Gareth.
“I do think it’s making our customer support reps – and our customers – happier. Our agents are willing to go the extra mile for the customer because there’s less hassle involved with answering emails. All the information and translation capabilities are there in front of you, so you don’t have to go back to Google Translate, or your order management software. Looking at customer relationships from previous emails is simple. It’s a very seamless process, that can be followed from start to finish easily.”
One of North Laine’s key ambitions is to expand into more stores and marketplaces in more countries, and a signed partnership has brought Gareth closer to fulfilling that ambition.
“We recently signed up with one of Apple’s main distributors in Europe, which is a huge opportunity for us. The distributor has direct access to a lot of the high street shops that we currently don’t have access to at the moment, so these are exciting times for us.”
Gareth says they will continue to build their private label brands.
“We will be doing a new brand launch with Broonel and also adding a few more lines to Navitech.”
Gareth’s advice for online sellers
From his nine years’ experience, one of Gareth’s key learnings has been to focus on quality over quantity.
“Don’t just ‘move boxes’ or sell for a 50p profit. Focus on the margin. We run at a 20 percent net margin, and 30-40 percent gross. We keep focusing on a high margin. I know that’s hard for a lot of online sellers to do, but my biggest piece of advice is, you’re better off selling one thing for £5 profit than ten things for 50p profit.”
He says he has experienced both the highs and the lows of eCommerce, but has learned that both are a natural part of selling online.
“In eCommerce, you never really win the game – you just play it. That’s all we’ve done for the past nine years. We’ve had wins – like big sales over Christmas or a new product we’ve hit before anyone else – but they come and go. What comes out on top will ultimately fall off the bottom as well. As long as you’re paying your bills and your colleagues are happy, you offer each other respect and be polite, I think that’s half the battle in life.”
Gareth says his customer support team are set up to succeed now and for the future.
“The main thing now is that we’re happy, and xSellco Fusion has helped make our lives easier. Anything that can do that for my team, for a small fee, I’ll bite their arm off.”