Ottawa kids’ clothing store gives e-commerce giant Shopify some brick-and-mortar lessons

Shopify / West End Kids
Shopify / West End Kids

Shopify markets itself as an e-commerce solution, the simple storefront that allows its merchants to sell everything from coffee to electronics to clothing, all online. In short, it powers online retail.

What’s not as explicit is what goes into Shopify’s products: its software, services, and even the point-of-sale hardware unveiled just last month at the Ottawa-based firm’s annual Unite conference.

How do Shopify employees know what merchants need when they’re designing these products? Westboro business owner Sheba Schmidt tells them.

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Ms. Schmidt has owned West End Kids, the sole children’s-only clothing store in Ottawa, for 22 years. A decade ago, she added an online store to supplement her brick-and-mortar location on Richmond Road. When she switched to using a Shopify online store in 2014, she had issues with migrating her brick-and-mortar point-of-sale solution over to Shopify’s platform.

“I don’t think they knew what they were doing, to be honest,” she says. The system failed to take into account the cost of goods, for example, and demonstrated a lack of awareness about the needs of real-world retail, she says.

The year West End Kids switched to a Shopify store was the same year Alëna Iouguina began as a user-experience researcher with the firm. When Ms. Schmidt voiced her concerns, it was Ms. Iouguina who headed a few kilometres west from Shopify’s downtown headquarters to learn more about using Shopify from the retailer’s perspective.

Thus began a partnership that would benefit both Shopify and West End Kids, and a working relationship between Ms. Schmidt and Ms. Iouguina that would blossom into a fast friendship.

Since that first meeting, about 15 Shopify employees – product managers, engineers, designers – have been through West End Kids, receiving a crash course in brick-and-mortar retail.

Ms. Schmidt, a schoolteacher by trade, takes great joy in showing the employees her workflow. Everything from inventory to interacting with customers and the logistics of programs such as in-store pickup has been covered as part of their collaboration.

Ms. Iouguina says the Shopify employees who came into the store were experiencing this side of commerce for the first time.

“A lot of the team working on the point-of-sale didn’t have first-hand experience with retail,” she says.

“Sheba lives it every day of her life.”

Though Shopify has similar partnerships with other retailers, one of the things Ms. Iouguina values most about her relationship with Ms. Schmidt is getting access to the store owner’s meetings with suppliers, where she decides what stock she’ll be carrying for that season.

Shopify is rarely privy to these types of discussions, yet they have a monumental impact on stores’ operations.

“That’s visibility that’s very hard to get,” Ms. Iouguina says.

On the other side of the coin, not only does Ms. Schmidt get a hand in crafting the solutions she’s using, but she’s visited the Shopify headquarters multiple times and gotten a peek inside the e-commerce giant’s inner workings.

“It still is a wonderful learning experience on both ends,” says Ms. Schmidt.

Mastering the world of e-commerce is increasingly important for West End Kids, and the results speak for themselves. Ms. Schmidt says that from 2007 to 2014, her yearly revenues from the online portion of her business topped out at $85,000. Since switching to Shopify, that number has soared to $230,000.

This dramatic growth likely cannot be attributed entirely to Shopify’s influence, but Ms. Schmidt says the need for an online presence can no longer be ignored, and she’s been encouraging fellow retailers to get on the platform.

“Any brick-and-mortar business that doesn’t have an online presence, they should just shut their doors,” she says.

Her priorities have shifted accordingly. Ms. Schmidt says she’s no longer selling on the floor, save for winter weekends. Today, her focus is entirely online, and her partnership with Shopify is a reflection of that. Shifting millennial shopping habits, for example, is an egg that both Shopify and West End Kids must crack.

“Shopify is growing with us. That’s what I love about them.”

“Shopify is growing with us. That’s what I love about them,” Ms. Schmidt says.

Ms. Iouguina believes Shopify’s approach avoids the fatal flaws many businesses exhibit: a bit of arrogance and an unwillingness to ask for help.

“It’s okay to recognize that you don’t have the expertise and find the people who can give you the expertise,” she says.

“I think one of the mistakes high-tech companies make is that they assume everything revolves around them. That’s not the reality at all. Shopify is a small puzzle piece in the big, complex world of retail. It’s not just Shopify contributing to the businesses, it’s the businesses contributing to Shopify.”

While hundreds of thousands of merchants’ websites proudly boast that they’re “powered by Shopify,” the reality is the Ottawa e-commerce firm is powered by the small retailers it seeks to serve.

This article originally appeared in the spring edition of HR Update. Read the full digital edition here.

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