“Lessons Learned” is a series where we ask ecommerce business owners to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed fashion entrepreneur Peter Landa who founded the online clothing store Black Sheep Road in early 2009. Based in Amsterdam, Holland, Black Sheep Road offers a unique mix of brands not easily found in the European marketplace. According to Landa, featured clothing and accessories must have the “black sheep factor,” meaning they are unconventional, stylish, and on the cutting edge of fashion.
Landa offers the benefit of his experience in the world of online high fashion retail below. Prior to launching Black Sheep Road, he spent nine years in the fashion business in Holland in positions that involved both exporting and importing.
Black Sheep Road is almost entirely online, but it does offer what Landa calls “pop up shops” throughout Amsterdam. He says, “[Pop-up shops are] one day shops in temporary locations that are a great way to generate
sales as well as market our business off-line.” Otherwise, the business operates from offices in Amsterdam.
Why Black Sheep Road?
“In Holland, there were not a lot of fashion web stores around, and the [brick-and-mortar] jeans stores or department stores were all offering the regular Diesel, Levi’s, G-Star and other brands that are already over-distributed in stores and online. We wanted to offer a fresh site design and brands that are not so easy to get your hands on. For instance, Modern Amusement and Alternative Apparel (both American brands) were not available at all in Europe. So we decided to compile brands that are not usually distributed in our area and have something special as a brand. We came up with the name Black Sheep because we want to target people who desire something different and want to discover brands before the masses do. The final result is a pan-European website that has a compilation of cool upcoming brands.”
“We use a modified osCommerce shopping cart. It was [initially] a pretty basic shopping cart that did not meet our needs in functionality and appearance, so our designers modified it heavily.”
Credit Card Payments
“We use a payments provider called Adyen. They take care of all credit card payments as well as iDEAL, a mainly European payment service, and PayPal. I must say, we’ve had quite a few frauds lately. Ayden takes the risk for MasterCard and Visa, but American Express is totally on our risk, so if we get a cancellation on American Express, we can’t claim the loss.”
“We use a shared Linux server. Our development company, Pitgroup, handles the hosting for us.”
“For now, it is just my girlfriend, Jelleke Cremers, and me running it. She also operates her own marketing agency focused on fashion and lifestyle.”
Search Engine Optimization
“Search engine optimization is a complex matter for us. Of course, we use dynamic header tags, SEO-friendly URLs, a dynamic sitemap, [and other established methods], but in Europe we deal with a lot of different languages and different countries. Every country has its own portals, e-magazines, and blog sites, which makes it complicated to get European coverage. Local players will always have more resources than us. We could target countries with Google AdWords, but [that will not help] our natural SEO needs. A solution for this could be to find local agencies that can do the SEO for us in their country in the relevant fashion section. From our statistics we can see that most of the site traffic is direct, rather than through search engines, magazines, affiliates or other means. This tells me that, in our case, word-of-mouth is perhaps the biggest generator of traffic, so we intend to stimulate that more, as well.”
“When opening an Internet fashion store we felt you cannot open it with two or three brands and 50 products and be taken seriously. So we opened with approximately 20 brands and around 200 different products. It was good for us publicity-wise, but stock-wise it was not the smartest move. If I were to start again, I would try to offer the same number of different products, but with less stock behind it.”
“Our biggest success is that we have had traffic from day one, and orders every day after week two. We had some great publicity in ELLE, Glamour, Esquire, and other online magazines, as well as some of the Dutch portals, which have helped tremendously. We have also distributed fliers in the key cities in popular bars, cafes, restaurants, [and other meeting spots].”
“We outsource our shipping and storage because we want to focus on marketing, buying, SEO, photography, and website updates. We use TNT to ship worldwide.”
“We travel quite a lot and visit fairs to search for new and upcoming brands. Also we find a lot through fashion blog sites and magazines.”
“We use the inventory management system in osCommerce. Our outsourced party [i.e., fulfillment provider] can access this as well, so they are up-to-date with our current inventory.”
“osCommerce has an accounting module which is good for now.”
“We target on Facebook, Hyves (a Dutch Facebook-type site), and Marktplaats (a Dutch eBay-type site), plus we do a lot of co-ops and affiliate advertising with fashion portal sites. Since we feature new and upcoming brands, some fashion magazines have mentioned us.”
“Our overhead is really low. The only expenses are traveling, marketing, website maintenance and our inventory partner.”
“We answer inquiries within 24 hours (often quicker) and make sure customers are happy with their purchases. Our return rate is extremely low, which is uncommon for a fashion site. If there is a problem we always make sure the customer can exchange or return the product. We personalize the correspondence as if they were shopping at their local boutique, so they have confidence in shopping with us.”