Monday, March 24

(Podcast) Bob Speaks: Interview

At the recent NEC Outdoor Show a series of UK national awards were announced by OUTDOORSmagic, an influential UK website designed to bring outdoors enthusiasts together and a major contributor to the news, views and reviews for the UK outdoor communities.

For one man this marked a circular journey originally started back in June 2005. For it was then that Bob Cartwright (aka Podcast Bob) and his wife Rose posed the question "Another lightweight website shop - Do we need it?"

Less than three years later the answer from the many thousands of OM site visitors looks to be a resounding Yes. For Bob & Rose's on-line shop (BPL) was jointly awarded "Best Specialist Outdoors Retailer" alongside Cotswold Outdoor, a major UK High Street outdoor retailer.

So what has been behind this rapid rise into the public's awareness to feature alongside other such long established outdoor brand names? To find out more about BPL I approached the man himself for some answers. Here is a distillation of a long and at times reflective chat with Bob. For once managing to turn the table on a man more used to holding the microphone, than being asked the questions.

Bob, so how did get started?
During my 2005 TGO Challenge I noticed Challengers were using an increased amount of lightweight gear, mostly imported. Around this time Rose and myself were considering an alternative to our own jobs. We wanted to be involved with something that not only interested us, but for which we had a real passion; Our involvement with lightweight outdoor activities, particularly backpacking.

Not such a big leap for me, with a self-employed background in freelance media production, but a major shift for Rose away from that security of a regular salary. After much research we decided that there was an opportunity to set up an on-line business, without the usual high start-up overheads and to satisfy an increasing desire for outdoor gear not then being met by many other UK companies.

Six months later we found ourselves wandering around the
Friedrichshafen Outdoor Trade Fair looking at innovative gear. A massive learning curve as we came across so many fantastic products mostly unknown and unavailable to the UK consumer. It was then we knew we had ourselves the potential for a sound business footing.

We've now been actively trading for two years. And during that time seen some established names fall by the wayside - it’s a rapidly changing marketplace.

What makes you different from others outdoor retailers?
Based on our own experiences over many years we feel we have an real understanding of what people are seeking when they come to us. We're able to provide expert advice. And if another retailer is more relevant for them then we're not afraid to say so, and hopefully give them some helpful advice along the way. It's all part of the passion we feel for what we do.

As a net based business, and based on my experiences both as a customer, and someone involved with marketing & sales, I understood the importance of building a strong relationship with each customer. Not to be just another anonymous retailer but 'a small corner shop with a very wide High Street' if you like.

Hence the post sale follow-up calls (one thing that often surprises people new to BPL). Its not a sales pitch, but a genuine desire to ensure our customer is happy with their purchase; And in turn a chance for us to get important feedback to help influence the products we stock, or should be on the look out for, and to ensure our pricing is realistically competitive so that we can continue to remain trading into the future;

That personal touch is something we take great pride in. And being a small company it means we can quickly share any feedback between Rose and myself and decide what we want to do with it. That's the flexibility of a small enterprise.

How did you feel on being told about the OM award?
We were thrilled that people had become aware of us, and surprised that we had made such an impact on the outdoor consumer that they would place us alongside such an established UK name as Cotswold Outdoor.

How difficult have you found it to establish your presence alongside outdoor High Street brands in such a competitive marketplace?
We've had to prove ourselves as a reliable retailer from the supplier perspective. That's alongside multiple small E-bay retailers who have unfortunately led to an erosion in the viability of some small independent traders.

Sadly the E-bay phenomena has resulted in some independent shops to cease trading. They just can’t compete on price alone. That important service and advice element is then lost to any potential future customer.

We trust we're supplying the added value services by establishing our reputation for Service and Advice based on personal experience, whilst protecting the supplier's reputation at the same time.

How successful do you think this approach has turned out to be?
We are just one internet based shop amongst hundreds of others and we aggressively hunt for those unique items that we know will be of interest to the outdoor user.

As a new business, albeit a small one, we consciously decided to seek out different items. That's those not already covered by the larger retailers with their greater buying power, typically ending up as a lower customer price than what we could offer. As a result we pride ourselves on researching specialist items not readily available from the High Street, such as
dehydrators. But all that takes considerable amounts of time and effort. Meanwhile we need to make a living. We're aware that successful lines may well be adopted by the bigger retailers, and we are continually on the look out for new ideas.

Our customers come from across mainland Europe, from Spain through to Germany, Sweden & Finland. And whilst the USA is well provided for by its own retailers, we find that for certain UK based products, such as
Montane, US customers come directly to us rather than via their own main stockists.

One of the products (Klattermusen Liv Down Smock) we spotted at the 2005 Friedrichshafen Show impressed us so much we organised its first availability in the UK. Twelve months later it received a coveted TGO Gear Award. Before that it was a completely unknown piece of kit in the UK.

What's the downside of running BPL?
The original idea was to set up an independent business that would allow us that flexibility that all self employed people seek. And at the same time enjoy the outdoors.

The reality was that this has taken up a considerable amount of time & investment. We're probably working harder at this than at anything either of us has done before. It takes over your personal life. The frustration is we seem to be doing less outdoor stuff as the work has taken over!

Any surprises along the way?
It is a sad state of affairs that I do not get 'sold to' by anyone - I have to go and find it. Even the bigger manufacturers and distributors will offer me goods and I have to make an order on that basis. I cannot believe that not one single person has "sold" to me (Hopefully Bob the good ideas will come flooding in once people read this)

As you know we have been involved in manufacturing product lines ourselves, for instance tarps, a specialist business all in itself. But as a small independent retailer the overheads involved in the manufacture and import is something that we have to consider very carefully before get involved. It all needs a substantial investment. And if we get it wrong, the risks for us personally are enormous.

Any product news you'd can let us in on at present?
Our self produced range of tarps (made in the same factory as
Lightwave tents and to the same high standard) should be available by early May. This will include a new duo-tarp. And as always we've some typically innovative ideas in the pipeline.

One of the criticisms of on-line shops is the inability to view the products - how do you overcome this?
We try to appear at outdoor shows where time and exhibition costs permit. For instance we will be at the
Backpackers Club 'Lightweight equipment and tent show' in Derbyshire in late April. We've a couple of Bushcraft and Kayak events in mind, and hopefully we'll be entering an Adventure Racing event as competitors during this year.

Meanwhile our podcasts (freely available on The Outdoors Station, and with over half a million downloads) have enabled us to inform, educate & explain some of the products and companies we have discovered. It gets the good news out incredibly quickly. And considered as a business overhead, at a very low marketing cost.

Finally - any advice to people considering setting up an on-line business?
Don’t! It’s a real labour of love. You must be prepared to invest heavily in your own time and money and have a real passion about what you supply.

So there you have it. A small company with a big heart trying hard to live up to its motto - ‘minimum weight - maximum fun'

The BPL team

Thanks Bob & Rose - and many best wishes for the future long and continued life of
There was no inducement of any nature behind this article. I approached Bob for the interview as a satisfied customer based on a distinct product range and that special level of customer service. Interested in what drives an individual to enter such a difficult market, and in such a short period achieve the enviable reputation that many high street brands spend large sums and many years trying to establish.


If you read Bob's first TGO Challenge diary you can see why he went lightweight - the load he was carrying!

I reckon Bob's next move should be to create an outdoor gear musuem - the stuff he has hidden away in those drawers!

Well done mate!
I'll check that one out

Hope it all came across ok
Really interesting thanks John.

And thanks Bob and Rose! A nice glimpse into what goes on to keeps BPL running.
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