Q&A: Online routes for small businesses into high street retailers

 
Matthew Hopkins
Pottery
Creative people don’t necessarily have a great deal of retail experience (Source: Getty)

Britain's small businesses, however innovative, can find it difficult to get their products into shops, and an increasing number use online platforms that enable them to sell directly to customers.

But there is a third way. Founded by Matthew Hopkins, who previously worked in licensed branding for the likes of Laura Ashley and Jamie Oliver, the Great British Exchange is a platform that pairs up British-made products, often from small suppliers, with trade buyers, including John Lewis. We caught up with him to find out more, and to discover how online services like his can help small businesses grow.

How did you come up with the idea for Great British Exchange?

I was sourcing products from the UK for one of the brands I was working with, and I was amazed by the number of really talented, innovative small businesses in Britain that were struggling to get their products into retail, even though they were creating exactly the sorts of items the stores wanted. My initial idea was just to build a warehouse and distribute directly, but it was clear that would be too expensive.

So we spent two years building an infrastructure that takes out the need for a warehouse. We source from hundreds of small British producers and, when a retailer comes onto our website, they buy from the Great British Exchange. We then ping orders out to whichever producer the retailer is interested in, and the whole system is integrated with our courier service. Once the order is ready, the courier picks it up and delivers it direct to the buyer.

Why do smaller firms struggle to get their products into stores?

Many of the people we’re talking about are creative by nature, and they don’t necessarily have a great deal of experience with the retail sector. It can be a daunting experience putting a product you’ve poured your heart and soul into in front of John Lewis, and possibly having it rejected. Having that one step removed can be a big help.

We manage the entire order to cash process. We’ll take the products, upload them onto the website, market them, do all the admin, invoicing, and the payments, transactions and returns. It means the producer can go on and do what they do best.

You also have a showroom. To what extent can small firms rely entirely on online services to grow?

People do like to touch and feel products, and we have about 10 per cent of all the items on our website on display in our showroom. But as consumers, we are as a nation very comfortable buying online. We had mail order catalogues before, and it’s not been a very difficult transition to go from catalogue to buying on the internet. This is all the more true if the website has the right sort of functionality: we make sure the photography is very good, that there are product videos. We work with retailers to find out how they want to buy.

What other support do you offer?

Our aim is to become a hub for British businesses, so we regularly signpost suppliers to services they might need. If someone has a legal issue, we can recommend a firm of solicitors. We’ve also recently started to work with LDF so that, if a firm needs investment to buy a new sewing machine or printing press, for example, we can quickly put them in touch and hopefully maximise their chances of getting the funding they need to expand or cover essential expenditure.

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