IMRG Online Retailer Interview: Dotty Fish

A Q&A with Helen Chapman, Managing Director, Dotty Fish

Helen Chapman

We spoke to Helen about founding a multi-million pound business, international trading, and being shortlisted for an Amazon Small Business Award.

What is Dotty Fish?

Dotty Fish is an online-only business (though we do sell through some high street boutiques too), stocking baby shoes primarily, though we do offer ranges for older children too and some additional products such as bibs and bobs.

I initially set the business up 14 years ago. I had no experience in retail or online trading – really it was born out of frustration at how expensive baby shoes were. I’d just had a child and the only pairs I could find were £20, which is a lot of money for something that has such a short product lifespan. Back then I didn’t have a website, I just ordered 500 pairs and set up as a seller on eBay.

How did you find those suppliers?

I went on to Alibaba – it was around back then too! – and found a shoe-seller in China. I gave them all the designs to work to, although I wouldn’t say I have any particular artistic ability to speak of. Fortunately, designing baby shoes doesn’t require anything too strong in that respect – really, it’s all about using the right colours so the kids like them. And the parents, of course.

How is Dotty Fish faring at the moment?

At the end of our financial year, we will be a £2m business. We have 11 staff and are based out in Farnborough. Everyone is having a bit of a tricky time in their own way because of the continuing issues around Brexit, but we have posted four years of continuous growth throughout that process so have to be happy with that outcome.

When – if – it finally happens, it will have some ramifications for us, as 75% of our business is export, mostly into Europe. We have UK and German sites, where we put a lot of work into getting the translation right, but 80% of our sales are made through marketplaces – Amazon, CDiscount and Etsy.

In October just gone, we did note a slowdown in Germany during the weeks leading up to the 31 October deadline when Brexit was looking like it might actually happen. German shoppers tend to be quite careful and pay attention to the potential impacts of things like that, but volumes soon went up again after it was pushed back.

What would you identify as your key challenge?

As a lot of our sales come from Germany, we’d like to be able to optimise how we sell there to increase margins. We offer quality products at an affordable price, so those margins are necessarily not very high. If we could increase the confidence German shoppers have in buying direct from our site, rather than from Amazon (who takes a portion of revenue as commission), it would help push those up. Although it’s a tough transition to achieve – as with the UK, Amazon is where the shopper trust is.

What do you think is the way forward for Dotty Fish?

Reaching new customers is always what you’re trying to do, but it’s difficult. We are a small company, so we don’t have much budget for advertising (though we do some PPC with Google).

The thing that tends to work best for us is word-of-mouth. There was an example where we suddenly took 70 orders from a small town in Italy, where we hadn’t previously sold much. We asked some of those customers how they heard about us, and it turned out there was a nursery group where one person had bought a pair of our shoes. They then recommended everyone get a pair and they duly obliged – that’s fantastic, and very cost-effective, marketing.

Our strongest USP is the quality of our products, made available at affordable prices. We’ve worked hard at that: we had an endorsement from the London Podiatry Centre after going through testing with them. We put the shoes on babies and had them walk around, and discovered it’s soft soles that give the best results. As a result, we swivelled our focus on to concentrate on that.

The problem in the UK is we do tend to have a shopping culture that values style over substance, to an extent. People will buy Nike trainers to put on their babies, which might look really good, but they are designed to look good rather than be the best choice for their feet.

Who is your customer?

Mums and dads and doting grandparents are the core; those with little kids. We aren’t specific to a demographic, we have customers who are affluent and not affluent. The thing that works best for us is, as I said, word-of-mouth.

We also have to play a genuine support role in our customer services. A lot of our customers have just had their first child and are still learning on the job, so we get some very practical questions in – things like ‘how do I measure my baby’s feet’ or ‘how do I wash these shoes’. We have to be very understanding in our engagements with them, as some are very tired and good experience there is what drives repeat custom.

We’ve also recently expanded out of baby shoes too, so we now offer ranges up to 5-6 years. That helps with building a longer relationship with those customers.

Congratulations on being nominated for an award. Confident you’ll win?

Hopeful rather than confident! We’re delighted to be a finalist in the Amazon Small Business Awards, specifically for Exporting Small Business of the Year. I think we’ve got an interesting story, building this business on no prior experience in this area, seeing an opportunity and making it work through sheer determination.

(If you want to vote for Helen and Dotty Fish, you can here.)

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