Easy days in eCommerce are over, says ex-Wiggle boss

It is much more difficult to build a successful online retail business today than it was just a few years ago, according to the former boss of bike and sporting goods e-tailer Wiggle.

Humphrey Cobbold, who left Wiggle in 2013 after four years in the CEO hot-seat, said that the competition in online retailing is intensifying and there are very few niches left for retailers to exploit in the eCommerce space, but there are a number of key methods firms can follow to grow and thrive in such a combative space.

Talking at supply chain solutions provider MetaPack's The Delivery Conference on Tuesday, the retail exec suggested that consumer engagement online is becoming increasingly important, as well as the choice of platform that retailers use to communicate with their customers.

"If you don't have plans to be mobile and tablet-first [in your approach], then you are behind the game," he warned, before adding that the next 12 months will see such mobile platforms become the preferred choice for shoppers looking to engage and transact with brands.

It's not all about technology, however, and the former CEO admitted that there are some fundamental retail processes that must be adhered to if a business is to develop in the online world.

Good service levels are required at all parts of the customer journey, including the initial search and enquiry stage. Understanding how a shopper is interacting with a website is seemingly crucial for optimising conversions and building lasting relationships.

"Every online business has the capacity to interact with their customers on their own platforms," Cobbold noted, before arguing that live chat functions can be more effective than using external social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

It was also suggested during his presentation that retailers might benefit from thinking less like retailers if they are going to move forward. In an online retail world led by the likes of Amazon, it is essential that companies find their point of differentiation.

"We realised we had to be different – and a lot of this was about creating information and content. This became very important to us and we thought of ourselves as a bit of media business."

He also admitted that Wiggle, which in its last reported results for 2012 saw revenues rise 20% to over £140 million and EBITDA reach £14 million, has made some mistakes during what has been an impressive growth story to date. But the important thing, he added, is that the business learned from these errors by listening to its customers and moving on.

Retailers that continue to evolve, test new strategies and ensure they get the fundamentals right, are set to be the ones that progress in the fast-moving eCommerce marketplace. Online retail leaders such as Amazon achieve this by continually offering new functionality online and fresh delivery options, but Cobbold believes there are plenty of opportunities for other retailers to find their place in the market.

"We're at the end of the beginning [in terms of the eCommerce revolution]," he asserted."

"Ecommerce is such an amazing place to be and we're lucky to living through such an exciting revolution."