Achieving retail scale in a post-pandemic world

retail scale

When Julie Dean and her mum started creating heritage-style satchels at their kitchen table, it’s unlikely they imagined the huge success they’d enjoy a decade down the line. The Cambridge Satchel Company, which started life with just £600 of seed money, now boasts an annual turnover of more than £65 million and an esteemed customer base that includes Lady Gaga and Kate Middleton. 

Part of their success, says Julie (now a CBE), is down to seizing opportunities and taking calculated risks. As retailers consider how they can bounce back from the torment and turmoil of the pandemic, her journey from kitchen business to HRH supplier provides food for thought. Why should you settle for maintaining the status quo when the external environment continues to throw up unexpected shocks? As UK plc rebuilds, now is a good time to shift your retail business up a gear. 

Why regrowth calls for reimagination

In a recent report, analysts at McKinsey describe five qualities that will be critical for business leaders to navigate this period: resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. In order to come back stronger, McKinsey says, companies should fundamentally reassess what they do and how they do it.

Plenty of businesses are doing this already – and not just large multinationals. Remote working has shown all business owners that office space could be an unnecessary expense. Bricks and mortar retailers have had to pivot online and embrace technology. Countless organisations are rethinking how they operate in order to respond to pandemic-fuelled changes in customer behaviour. The ‘Amazon generation’ – who expect fast service, ‘free’ delivery and speedy returns – are forcing all businesses to raise their game.

Does getting bigger mean giving up control?

One of the main reasons small business owners struggle to scale up is that they keep things in-house for too long. If Julie Dean had continued making and shipping satchels from her kitchen table, she simply wouldn’t be where she was today. 

Fulfilment is the best example of a business function that needs to be outsourced at the earliest opportunity. For growing eCommerce retailers, packaging up each item and taking it to the post office every day is an arduous and time consuming task. And there’s an obvious ceiling to home-based fulfilment activity – the time it takes, the amount of storage space people have in their homes, the headache of manually processing every single order. 

Yet on the flip side, outsourcing can feel like giving up control – hard to accept when you’re passionate about your work and want every aspect of your business to be perfect.

Riding the hamster wheel

Even when sellers do acknowledge the need to outsource, a vicious cycle often comes into play. Most traditional fulfilment providers won’t accept a retailer unless they sell a certain number of products each day and are prepared to commit to hefty fees and contractual obligations. But these home-based eCommerce operations will never grow to this size without the help of a fulfillment company; and so they continue on the hamster wheel. 

Instead of taking this rejection as a sign that your business is destined to remain small, it’s vital that you explore the outsourced fulfilment market more fully and look beyond the traditional establishment. 

There are a growing number of new fulfilment companies springing up that use technology to bring down the cost of picking, packing and shipping, and that don’t require lengthy contracts or high order volumes from day one. Some are even able to integrate their technology into your existing sales channels and platforms, helping you to track your inbound goods, monitor stock levels and update sales in real-time – helping you to build a more robust infrastructure which will support you as you grow.

Build up a great team 

Partnering with one of these firms still means handing over control of a sizeable chunk of your eCommerce operation, and that isn’t always easy for passionate sellers. 

But remember, scaling a business is a team effort. It’s important that you choose the right people to come on this exciting journey with you, and for small retailers in particular, ’the team’ doesn’t always mean employees or colleagues – it means the network of suppliers and partners you work with. 

From fulfilment providers to packaging designers, to marketers and even tech firms, the right partners will take on your mission as their own and commit themselves to doing the best job on behalf of you and your business. Yes, they are outsourced providers, but ultimately, they’re there to help you stay focused on the thing that you’re best at – selling.

Reimagining the future

The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster, even for the eCommerce sellers whose businesses have soared during the pandemic. Businesses have endured a constant battle to maintain service provision, mitigate supply risks and stave off the threat of new competition, not to mention protecting their staff through a health crisis. 

But the global pandemic and accompanying economic crisis have also provided the impetus for start-ups, side-hustlers, independent retailers and many other fledgling businesses to  reimagine their future and take a leap outside of their comfort zone. 

The retailers who step up their game now will be better equipped to take on the challenges and opportunities of the post-Covid economic landscape. Like Julie Dean and her mum, with drive, resilience, reform – and an extended team of partners and suppliers helping you out – it’s possible to look beyond the kitchen table and build a bigger and better future for your retail business.