Modern Retail had the pleasure of speaking with Vlad Vassiliev, Managing Director at the UK’s largest vaping retailer, Vape Club.
Vlad talked us through how he entered the ecommerce market, explaining how he picks the right products to sell, top tips for a stand-out ecommerce experience and much more.
1. What inspired you to begin in the world of ecommerce?
I began building static websites at the age of 14. By the age of 16, I had learnt to build database-driven websites and this skillset lent itself naturally to ecommerce. This was in the early 2000s where we had the first dot-com bubble and before services like Shopify and WordPress were around. So it was a lot of fun working on early ecommerce websites where you had to design the database and build most of the business logic from scratch. There were some ecommerce systems around like Actinic, but they were very clunky, inflexible and not SEO-friendly. In my late teens, I found my happy niche at a web agency focusing on developing ecommerce stores using Adobe ColdFusion.
In my early 20s, I left my web development role to join an ecommerce business as a shareholder and I haven’t looked back since.
2. How do you pick the perfect products to sell?
That’s a tough one to answer, and largely depends on what you consider a perfect product. The first rule is to never let your personal preferences or choices affect your business buying decisions. Sure, you may think the product is great, but will people agree with you when it comes to spending their hard-earned cash? Over the years, there were many products that I overlooked and they became best sellers. Those were very expensive lessons.
Of course it helps if you have an interest in the products you are looking to sell, it means you can make more informed decisions and ultimately will enjoy your work. I’ve sold everything from scarves and jewellery, to scented candles, electric skateboards and vapes. You have to become a mini-expert in all the fields, but some are more interesting than others.
In an ideal world, the perfect product would be a small, robust consumable that fits easily through a letter box and generates high margins and lots of return customers. Vaping eliquids fit very nicely into this niche.
It’s much easier for established businesses to identify consumer trends and demands, but starting out from scratch can be tricky and you may have to keep trying and trying to find that special product. Products like the yo-yo and balance hoverboards come around every so often: you just have to keep on trying until you hit the bull’s eye!
3. What would be your top tips to create a stand-out ecommerce experience for customers?
At Vape Club, we pride ourselves on a high level of customer service. We believe that customers are your best marketing asset, especially in an industry where ads for nicotine-containing e-cigarettes not licensed as medicines are prohibited in most media. Customers are seeking advice and information around quality products, so we’ve made sure to invest in digital to enhance the quality of the website and online channels to ensure we deliver an optimal customer experience, from browsing online to product delivery.
Being available for customers via telephone, live chat and email during working hours has proven extremely important for customer satisfaction and loyalty. Customers are becoming increasingly frustrated with companies who are unresponsive to their needs, taking to social media as a last resort to gain a business’ attention. In order for us to keep our customers happy, we made sure to recruit and train a number of new customer service operatives to bolster our team and keep up with demand. As a result, our customers have referred us to their family/friends/colleagues. Our customers knew they could confidently recommend our service as we’ve made sure to put their needs first.
4. Which challenges did you face as a result of Covid-19 and how did you overcome these?
During lockdown, we saw unprecedented growth in sales, peaking at nearly 300% above our normal run rate. This growth brought additional challenges and a strong team was essential to maintain levels of service.
With a huge surge in sales, the velocity of stock movement through the company created additional challenges in stock management and timely procurement. We focused on strengthening our logistics teams, which included warehouse managers, supervisors and stock-purchasing teams.
Another challenge was being able to dispatch two to three times the usual orders, while maintaining social distancing rules. We were able to utilise unused areas of our warehouse to install additional packing desks, which were spaced over 2m apart and had plastic sheeting separating each area. We were also able to move a large chunk of our office staff to home working, which meant we could bring in additional warehouse staff into the building without making it feel cramped.
On the digital side of things, there was nothing worse than having a great website with lots of traffic, but not having any products to sell. We used proprietary stock movement and monitoring APIs that showed us daily and weekly sales per stock-keeping unit. The purchasing teams then used these bar charts to see what increases or decreases were occurring across product sales, so that they could buy the correct amount.
5. How important is adding value for customers
Extremely. If a new customer is having a pleasing and beneficial interaction, the chances of them returning and purchasing products are high. All businesses should be placing the utmost importance on treating their consumers like kings and queens, at all levels of the company. This intrinsically converts to customer retention and loyalty.
Additionally, producing high-quality content for our customers – such as surveys around the benefits of quitting smoking for mental health, to how-to guides for beginners – means we have a wide range of information available to all customers, whether they’re new or seasoned vapers. We make sure that our website acts as a hub for all vaping-related queries.
6. What have you found the most successful way to grow customer loyalty?
Communication has been key to growing customer loyalty. Keeping them informed of the status of service has been critical to our success. As previously mentioned, we are able to offer communications not just via social media and our website, but by telephone, webchat and WhatsApp. Ensuring all of these processes are operating smoothly through sensible delegation is the ultimate foundation of building customer loyalty.
Just like in any ecommerce business, improving customer satisfaction requires consistency, whilst always being on the lookout to adapt and mature with the market no matter what direction that may be. The biggest and simplest piece of advice to give anyone looking to succeed in ecommerce is for the whole organisation to pay extreme attention to detail.
Providing an unrivalled service to our customers has also given them the confidence to continue purchasing with us. Orders placed before 7 PM are dispatched the same working day. We also dispatch orders on Saturdays and Sundays, often for Monday delivery, so customers are receiving their products almost instantly. We’ve made it our mission to offer our customers the widest range of authentic vaping products, so offering this product range and diversity has incentivised our customers to keep checking the website for brand-new products.
7. Has your fulfilment method changed as your businesses have grown?
Our principal method of fulfilment has not changed: we’ve always relied on having our own warehouse and fulfilment facilities. We’ve never outsourced and have always managed to scale our operations effectively. This way we are in charge of our own destiny and can always ensure that our needs are the priority. We have more control and visibility of our stock, issues can be identified and rectified quicker, and there is nothing better than having a motivated, dedicated team to handle your logistics. Mistakes and damages are minimised and all of this leads to a better customer experience.
Due to rapid growth, we have had to introduce dual shifts in the warehouse and seven-day- a-week operations. This has allowed us to introduce seven-day-a-week deliveries and same-day dispatch until 7 PM on a weekday. By having our own warehousing, we were able to adjust this to our needs; I don’t think we would have this much flexibility with a third party.
8. What’s next for you?
At present, my main focus is expanding our vape retail operation VapeClub. We are the largest online independent vape retailer in the UK and we’re constantly building the UK side of the business to deliver an even better shopping experience for our customers. We’re also working on international expansion, using our proprietary software system and extensive industry knowledge gathered over the last 10 years. The main mission right now is to grow VapeClub into a global brand.
I’m also investing in/mentoring a number of digital and eco startups. One such startup is ultrahighresolution.co.uk, a business focusing on large format natural textures for use in the construction/3D design industries, where you want the look of expensive marble without having the expense or the environmental costs associated with such materials. Our unique image capture system creates textures that can be printed on huge surfaces for commercial and residential use.
I don’t see myself starting any major new ventures as I would like to have more time to focus on health and wellbeing, as well as enjoying adrenaline adventures while my body can still take the strain. In recent years, I bought myself a luxury campervan and have been all over the UK on my mountain bikes, paddle/surf boards and my trusted hiking boots. I’ve also enjoyed motor racing this year in the Fun Cup Endurance Championship. I’ve been working in e-publishing and ecommerce since I was 16, so I want some more time to enjoy the fruits of my labours.
If I am to start a new venture in the future, it would certainly be a blockchain-based venture to take on the likes of Amazon or Facebook. I think there is a lot of positive disruption that can happen in that space to decentralise the current monopolies!
Holly brings a wealth of experience in both print and digital publishing. As Modern Retail’s Content Editor, Holly is passionate about helping independent retailers to thrive in today’s ever-changing market.