April 11, 2021

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How Earl of East Transformed a Foot Traffic Business Into a Digitally-Ready Brand

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In an increasingly digital world, the popular assumption is that retail brands have to struggle. Especially those that rely on foot traffic and local communities. But this wasn’t the case for London homeware brand Earl of East, who managed to do just the opposite. 

Founders Niko Dafkos and Paul Firmin created Earl of East in 2014. At the time, it was a passion project—a way for the founders to connect with their local community.

But it wasn’t enough.

Being around so many talented makers, they soon realized that they wanted to make their own products, and within a year they had their core line of candles. By that point, they’d gone from being a one-off market trader to a weekly trader, to opening a 10ft x 8ft shipping container as a permanent shop.

Through what they call their four pillars (Create, Curate, Collaborate, and Community), they built up a local reputation for quality candles, fragrances, homewares, and more.

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Earl of East, Hackney

Over time, Earl of East eventually offered even more than that. They invited people in for coffee. They hosted workshops. In essence, they built a great local London shop for good, old-fashioned in-person interaction. It was exactly the kind of place you might assume wouldn’t survive a pandemic.

But Earl of East did more than survive. They thrived by:

  • Integrating “Click and Collect” to keep stores open and engaged with customers during regular hours
  • Expanding workshop offerings to include international guests in digital hangouts, expanding their customer base
  • Opening a new shop in London even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

Now with stores in both Hackney & Kings Cross, Earl of East is a perfect example of how to marry local communities with digital infrastructure. 

Their secret weapon…

One of the keys for Earl of East was its new Shopify POS, which unifies online and in-store offerings on a single inventory and payment system. 

Learn more

Here’s how they did it.

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Earl of East, Kings Cross

Challenge: Making foot traffic work (without the feet)

Earl of East locations are friendly places.

They’re home to creative workshops, their own line of products, curated homeware and lifestyle products from local makers and independent brands, and live events. They even invite local artists to exhibit their work.

Local businesses are welcome too, showing off what else is going on in London.

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But like any growing retail space, Earl of East needed more.

For starters, they needed more places to gather. This led them to their location of Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross, their eventual flagship store. And they needed a new digital infrastructure.

Under their old model, it was difficult to track one store’s product price from another store. The old payment system wasn’t offering the stock and inventory tools necessary to unite their spaces into a single point of reference.

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Earl of East, Kings Cross

Earl of East was smart. It knew even before the pandemic that their strength was getting people in the door. 33% of UK shoppers believe that a “sense of community” is one reason to shop locally. Earl of East knew how to foster that sense of community. 

“33% of UK shoppers believe that a ‘sense of community’ is one reason to shop locally.”

They understood the value of loyal customers. For example, 64% of UK customers prefer that a store knows about their past purchases, even when they shop in person. What Earl of East didn’t have was the inventory management and payment structure to put these insights into practice.

“64% of UK customers prefer that a store knows about their past purchases, even when they shop in person.”

They needed to pivot the way they did business if they were going to expand to multiple stores effectively. Fortunately, when they turned to Shopify in 2019, their digital revolution couldn’t have come at a better time. The foot traffic was about to grind to a halt.

“Last year, we obviously had to pivot the business and take it all digital. We had already transitioned from Vend to Shopify, which was so good. When we opened [a new space], we had to grow up with the business. We couldn’t just do handwritten price tags and have inventory in our minds.”

Niko Dafkos, Earl of East

“Last year, we had to pivot the business and take it all digital. We had already transitioned from Vend to Shopify, which was so good.”

Solutions: Embracing a digital structure without losing local charm

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Earl of East had already migrated to Shopify. The infrastructure for an increasingly digital presence was in place.

But Earl of East always knew that it had to have a mix of traditional retail foot traffic and a digital presence if it was going to stick to its roots in the midst of an unprecedented event.

They had already built up a reputation in their local community. And they weren’t about to ignore them in favor of a global, digital audience.

Earl of East continued to focus on its local customers by enabling Click & Collect. This application made it possible for customers to place orders and pick up their wares in person while still practicing social distancing.

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BookWorkShop, Kings Cross

But Earl of East didn’t want a haphazard approach to curbside pickup. They would offer Click & Collect by treating it like store hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday. Customers who had become accustomed to their hours could still rely on Earl of East’s familiar hours.

“I think what we’ve realized is that if you give a customer that consistency that they put their trust in you, they’re more likely to come back.” 

Niko Dafkos, Earl of East

That wasn’t all Earl of East did to stay connected with its loyal community of customers. They also integrated Shopify Ping messaging to keep conversations alive.

In doing so, Earl of East learned a new approach to foot traffic: thinking digitally.

They realized that if customers would leave their website because they didn’t get a question answered, it was the same as a customer walking out of their shop. Shopify Ping gave customers one more reason to stick around.

Earl of East also needed a solution to its workshop approach.

They had built up a loyal network of customers and community enthusiasts who enjoyed the artwork, books, and creative activities in Earl of East workshops. In the original model, Earl of East would host these workshops in their space while some customers would simply come in, hang out, have coffee, and shop. Foot traffic followed.

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BookWorkShop, Kings Cross

Moving their digital structure to Shopify kept customers on the website the same way a cup of coffee might keep them in the store.

Earl of East also learned more about every customer. By unifying their customer profiles and inventory through Shopify, they could keep track of the community they built. If a customer shopped on their site, Shopify made it possible to remember what they ordered, how often they shopped there, and even their lifetime value to the brand.

“By unifying their customer profiles and inventory through Shopify, they could keep track of the community they built.”

Through omnichannel commerce, the 2019 overhaul at Earl of East removed barriers for retailers and consumers. By the time COVID-19 hit, the brand had already blurred the lines between online and in-person sales. Adapting to a new digital reality was that much easier.

Finally, they learned the value of moving their workshops online. “Candlemaking workshops didn’t happen in our studio around the table, but more in peoples’ kitchens via a video link. They’re really successful,” said Dafkos. 

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He admitted feeling skeptical at first. “I like the fact that it brings strangers together, and I thought we’d lose that intimacy.” But the online workshops brought in a completely new element. Customers invited friends to attend, and these customers came from all over the world. 

“It kind of adds a whole other level,” said Dafkos.

The results

Rather than suffer in the pandemic, Earl of East continued to grow, even expanding by one shop.

Earl of East has truly adapted their business to meet the new face of retail and reinvented key processes along the way, like accepting contactless payments and embracing new forms of remote support. 

Every shop is connected to the same inventory. And the success of the digital workshops was so convincing that Earl of East plans to continue them even when there are zero social distancing regulations in place.

“Every shop is connected to the same inventory.”

“Retail certainly went through struggles, but we still believe in physical retail. It’s so important. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have the support that we had online if it wasn’t for our retail spaces. So we’re just looking to extend that to other neighborhoods in London and potentially even Europe.”

Niko Dafkos, Earl of East

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Earl of East, Hackney

In the end, Earl of East still believes in the power of retail.

They’ve simply added new elements to make that power more durable. 88% of shoppers in the UK said they mostly (or at least half the time) shop in person. That dropped significantly during the pandemic. But 75% of people plan on heading back to the store.

Shops like Earl of East’s local hangouts will be the ones ready to benefit in either contingency. 

How’d they do it?

One of the keys for Earl of East was its new Shopify POS, which unifies online and in-store offerings on a single inventory and payment system. Learn more about Shopify POS and discover how the same advantages at Earl of East can work throughout the world of retail.

Learn more

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