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TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION 8


During that time I would sit at a desk made from two gas canisters with a polystyrene ceiling tile balanced across them, e-mailing customers to explain


MICHAEL PARKER, founder of online sweetshop A Quarter Of


M


ichael Parker says that when he dreamt up the idea for an


online sweet shop selling old-fashioned favourites, he didn’t know whether it would appeal to other people, but it clearly did: since we last spoke to him in 2004, he has moved the business to a 15,000- square-foot warehouse in Blackburn, Lancashire. A Quarter Of has grown its staff from just one or two permanent employees to nine or ten, increasing to more than 30 to cope with the Christmas rush.


“Before that it felt like a bit of a sham,”


Michael admits. “The website didn’t properly portray how tiny we were. Like a duck that looks serene on the surface but underneath is paddling like mad!” And the Internet meant the quirky


appeal of the business could find a wide audience. He says he would never have set up a physical shop because of the financial risk involved. “I set up with some Ikea shelving and 30 jars of sweets,” he says, adding that the Internet is great because it allows him to try different things and get an immediate response. “Rather than trying to speak to everyone, you can focus on your target market – high-street shops have to be very generalist.” And protecting the brand has become


more important than ever as more and more businesses start up online. “It’s never been harder to get your name, your brand,


www.better-business.co. No. 180 — APRIL/MAY?


www.better-business.co.uk No. 181 – JUNE/JULY 2011


your image above other sites; the fact that it’s so easy means lots of people are doing it. Differentiation is difficult. “That’s why we’ve kept the cartoon look, the customer-centred approach – if we became a bland supermarket, we’d just blend in.”


He also thinks that while the Internet


has created many more opportunities for new businesses to start up, it moves so quickly that it can also make things harder for them. “I look at our competitors – often one-man-bands, working from home – and you can tell it’s impossible for them to keep up, especially when it’s a part-time business. “We have the man-power now so


I don’t have to deal with orders and can keep an eye on things to make sure we have an advantage.” However, the firm’s reliance on technol-


ogy led to one of the biggest challenges it has faced over the last few years. Michael recalls how, arriving at their new


premises with 60 pallets ready to move in, they discovered someone else’s pallets already there. It took 11 days to sort out, during which time Michael’s priority was keeping his customers informed of what was going on – not helped by the fact that they could only run the website via a dial- up connection.


“During that time I would sit at a desk


made from two gas canisters with a polystyrene ceiling tile balanced across them, e-mailing customers to explain. “It was horrible, horrible, horrible – but, I thought, ‘if we can get through that, we can get through anything!’”.


www.better-business.co.uk No. 182 – AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2011 www.better-business.co.uk No. 183 – OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2011 www.better-business.co.uk


No. 184 – DECEMBER 2011/ JANUARY 2012


Michael believes it was by being genuine and honest with their customers that the business survived the crisis. Another lesson he’s learned over the years is the impor- tance of stock control for responding to orders. After a period of unexpected publicity in 2003 led to a huge surge in demand, Michael had a Christmas he never wants to repeat. “We got the orders, and we had to fulfil them,” he says. He subsequently wrote a stock control system that would ensure they could handle the bread-and-butter orders while coping with sudden peaks in demand like that. In recent years, the business has been


turning over up to £20,000 a day in the run-up to Christmas, and Michael has studied the trends carefully. He says 11 December is always the biggest day – “it always follows a precise pattern”. “We’ve had to get more sophisticated; now we’re monitoring stock the whole time.” The next thing on his to-do list is to


develop the website for mobile users. “There’s more than enough to keep me going! If you’d asked in 2004, I’d probably have expected to be putting my feet up by now, but the more you do, the more there is to do – there are always more opportunities.” Michael says the highlight for him has been seeing the business grow. “I get a kick every time someone says they like it – the site, the quirky approach – it’s very gratifying. When I started it, I thought ‘I like it, I hope others do too’.”❖


www.AQuarterOf.co.uk www.better-business.co.uk No. 185 – FEBRUARY–MARCH 2012


www.better-business.co.uk No. 187 – JUNE–JULY 2012


www.better-business.co.uk No. 188 – AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 2012


Franchising unwrapped


…why it works so well, especially in a downturn


start your own business … and plenty of reasons why you could


Why you shouldn’t


Business scams and cons how to avoid getting stung


PLUS: FINDING IDEAS | PRODUCT LICENSING | FORECASTING SALES PLUS: PRICING IT RIGHT | IR35 EXPLAINED | THE SKILLS GAP


Social media and business – the perfect match?


PLUS: 3 FUNDING GAPS | ‘GETTING’ GROUPON | ECO-BUSINESS IDEAS


Party Plan is booming – but is there a catch?


PLUS: MARKETING FIXES | PROBLEM STAFF | REDUCING RISKS PLUS: DISCOUNT SALES | BUSINESS DISASTERS | GOOGLE+ PLUS: HANDLING LEADS | IDENTITY THEFT | SELLING ONLINE


Business Mentors: Will they work for you?


PLUS: SURVIVAL TIPS FOR RETAILERS


SUPPORT FOR SOCIAL ENTERPRISES HOWTO KEEPTABS ONYOUR RIVALS


EMPLOYEE MUTUALS: Do you want the right to provide?


PLUS: LINKEDIN TIPS FOR FREELANCERS


DEALING WITH HMRC TAX CHECKS HOW TO SELL TO DEPARTMENT STORES


Finding newflexible friends (Especially those with deep pockets)


Better Business No 189


www.better-business.co.uk


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