Frustration with how long it takes to book a holiday online pushed the Shoptility team to start the venture.
That team is now more than 20 strong including founder Will Lownsbrough, chief technology officer Jeremy Ward, financial director Ed Jones and marketing director Tom Hings.
To date the company has raised almost £2 million and is going after the UK online shopping market across a number of verticals with travel first up.
Shoptility says its business model is the 'opposite of most' and makes the retailer search on behalf of the customer rather than the other way round.
The revenue model is also slightly different with retailers only paying when a consumer chooses to engage with them and not just because they have clicked on a link.
Q&A with founder Will Lownsbrough
What problem does the business solve?
Online shopping can be frustrating and time-consuming. Research (from Sunshine.co.uk) has shown that the average Briton spends as many as 24 hours looking for and researching holidays on the internet. Shoptility does away with seemingly endless searches across multiple sites to compare products. With just a single, simple enquiry shoppers can now connect with multiple retailers that can help. The retailers effectively do the searching so you don’t have to.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
Right from the start the consumer has been our number one priority and we have a great process in place that allows us to constantly improve and bring the best to our shoppers - as well as to our retailers. One of the things we have changed along the way is our branding – which we’ve made more approachable and friendly in line with our brand personality.
As for the actual ‘product’, user experience testing has enabled us to bring necessary changes to our platform and enhance it for shoppers.
Why should people or companies use the business?
People will use Shoptility because it makes online shopping faster, simpler and, crucially, tailored to their needs. For retailers Shoptility is an exciting and efficient new sales channel that will help generate leads. It provides a level playing field for brands large and small; niche specialists will have the same opportunity as major household brands to connect with consumers and respond to their requirements, each one able to bring something slightly different to the party.
Another key benefit is the fact that Shoptility enables retailers to communicate with consumers on a one-to-one basis, allowing them to respond to the individual needs of each shopper and build brand loyalty – a departure from the traditional ‘one size fits all’ online shopping experience.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from PR)?
Shoptility is investing £500k in a heavyweight digital media campaign running from November '14 to May '15. In spring 2015 we intend to extend this with a multi-million pound above the line campaign including TV, press and outdoor.
Where do you see the company in three years’ time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but our number one priority is to change the way people shop online by enabling consumers to have more personal interaction with retailers to find exactly what they’re looking for. In three years’ time we would like to be a leader in the online shopping arena, operating across all of our target markets; we would also like to be looking at international expansion.
One of the main challenges we face in getting to where we want to be is changing consumer behaviour. Online shoppers are used to trawling around the internet to find what they’re looking for – but we are confident that once they are shown the Shoptility faster, easier and more personal way of doing things they will soon be converted.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
It is not just travel and it’s not wrong for everyone. Normally booking a holiday online is a long drawn out process. A consumer has to trawl through reams and reams of search results across multiple sites to find their perfect holiday. Even then can they really be sure they have found what they are looking for?
Our approach allows the consumer to choose who it is they want to talk to up front, cutting out the need to search and allowing the retailer to demonstrate their product knowledge and expertise, as well as form a meaningful relationship with their customers.
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style... and why?
I recently was fortunate enough to go to New York and hear the co-founder of Etsy speak. Etsy talked a lot about its roots (build a site for people who make stuff to sell the stuff they make) and how that had helped shape not only its own culture, but also the culture it’s trying to create in its marketplace. Etsy had a really ‘local’ feel and attitude, recognising that actually creating this kind of social space for shoppers was the future - something we are big believers in here at Shoptility.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
Who said we’re looking to sell?!
Describe your startup in three words?
People, pace, passion
The idea of quicker and easier online holiday search is great in theory. It's what traditional bricks and mortar travel agents are for. And, they continue to be used for more complex and specialist trips. There might be a lesson there because one thing established online travel brands have struggled with is bringing a human touch to online bookings.
Many have tried with online chat functionality, call-centres, virtual agents and hybrids of the offline/online world where agents are sent qualified leads.
Is Shoptility the answer? It's hard to say. It will take a lot of brand building to get consumers to even give it a go. Once they are on the site it's easy to use.
That said, once customers have submitted their basic enquiry details and chosen five travel companies to send those details to, the onus is on those travel companies to respond. Hopefully the model of retailers not having to pay unless a customer is engaging with them will tempt retailers to give it a punt.
Trust will be another important factor if consumers are indeed to change their online behaviour and stop shopping around and again, building that trust will be much dependent on the quality of responses retailers provide.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Shoptility gains traction and whether the initial £500,000 digital campaign puts in on the map."