Firebox celebrates 21 years with shift in technology focus

Online retailing pioneer Firebox recently celebrated its 21st anniversary with the decision to move away from relying wholly on in-house technology solutions as it recognises out-of-the-box solutions will enable it to experiment more easily.

Tom Boardman, co-founder of lifestyle retailer Firebox, has headed up its technology function since day one and is excited by the prospect of making this shift from its long established strategy, which will initially see it move its front-end operations onto the Shopify platform.

“We’ve always wanted to do things individually but if we started today we’d use Shopify. It might actually have been the best route to have taken a year or two ago. We want to try new technologies and with this we can do it much more quickly,” he explains.

“The benefit of in-house solutions is that you can fix your own problems. But it does mean it’s down to you to fix them!"Tom Boardman, co-founder, Firebox

Back in the days of telephone orders

Such a move is indicative of how things have changed in online retail because when Firebox was founded in 1998 it did not even view the fledgling internet as its primary channel to market. Its starting point involved advertising its products in the men’s magazines of the day like Loaded and FHM and accepting orders over the telephone.

Its big winner was a chess shots board game that really set it on its way and had Boardman and co-founder Michael Acton Smith busily sourcing all the separate components and packaging the completed product. Smith left the business in 2004 and has since set up Mind Candy, Moshi Monsters and now runs Calm in the US. Boardman and Smith retain a combined stake in the business of almost 70%.

It was not until April 1999 that Boardman created a basic website and back then volumes were very low with only one online order taken in the first week from its selection of 25-30 products. The bulk of sales were driven by a paper catalogue and orders still taken over the phone. However, with the emergence of free online access, fuelled by the launch of Freeserve, the level of web sales built healthily with the best day involving 150 orders.

Despite raising £500,000 from private equity investor New Media Spark, which he admits went quickly, 2001 proved to be a struggle. But saviour came in a single hit product - a 1.0 Megapixel mini digital camera that was sold for £40. “In the pre-Amazon days you could have a product like this, get all the PR, fulfil the orders, and really cash-in,” he recalls.

At this early stage Firebox had the complexity of handling its own fulfilment from a depot in Croydon and would employ as many as 180 people over Christmas. This remained in place until 2013 when it outsourced this aspect, although it still runs its own software solutions for its logistics operation. The company also had the headache at this early stage of having to go into the actual code in order to mark up an item as out-of-stock and to then upload (via dial-up) this new status.

The product range has expanded to 600 SKUs today, which is deemed the ideal number following a brief period in 2011 when 2,000 lines were stocked and Boardman says was an unsuccessful move: “The level of curation went down and it was expensive to stock the range and resulted in a long tail [of thinly-traded items].”

Own brand and B2B

Such has been the incursion of competitors such as Amazon and other businesses using agile platforms like Shopify to set up shops online that Firebox has found it increasingly hard to sell other people’s products. This has led it to focus on building up its own-brand range that now accounts for 40% of sales. There is a team of six within product development, out of a total workforce of 35, which is double the size of the technology team that includes Boardman.

Another area of current day focus is its business-to-business operation that sells products like its Unicorn Tears Gin to large retailers including John Lewis, Next and Oliver Bonas. This now accounts for 25% of revenues and Boardman forecasts it could account for more than half of its turnover within two years on the back of phenomenal growth - that amounted to a hefty 250% last year.

Whether such developments are helped by the move to using the likes of Shopify remains to be seen but Boardman is pretty relaxed about both in-house developments and using external providers. “The benefit of in-house solutions is that you can fix your own problems. But it does mean it’s down to you to fix them! Over the 21 years I’ve found there’s always a way through any problem. What worries you one day is probably forgotten about the next,” he suggests.

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