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WetsuitOutlet.co.uk: The global marine retailer working with manufacturing partners

by Mark Jardine 29 Jan 04:00 PST
Ian Homan of Wetsuit Outlet © Mark Jardine

We recently caught up with Ian Homan of Wetsuitoutlet.co.uk and Tristan Hutt of Zhik, about how they work together, and the size and reach of the online retailer based in Shoeburyness, Essex.

With huge growth in visibility in the dinghy and keelboat markets, WetsuitOutlet.co.uk have seen a huge increase in turnover to £16 million since the company's humble beginnings in 2004. Now in this new year, this retailer is aiming to become a leading influence within the marine market with their key manufacturing partners.

Mark Jardine: Ian, how did you start the business and why did you base it in Shoeburyness?

Ian Homan: The business started with just Peter Thompson and myself. We were on the beach sailing and wanted to get more and more people into the sport and it seemed the ideal way to get people kitted out appropriately. As 70% of the Earth is covered in water, you need technical kit to get out on the water and really enjoy it.

The problem you face if you go to any small chandlers or shop is that they will only have a small inventory. Very few retailers can afford to stock everything you need, so it became obvious to us as time went on, we needed to put bigger investment into selling online. Back then, 15 years ago, this was all very new, and everyone told us it would never work as people wanted to try things on. With really good size charts, good descriptions and products that are really hard to get hold of, I think it started the internet revolution for the marine world.

Mark: WetsuitOutlet.co.uk is based in the old Barracks in Shoeburyness. You clearly saw the potential as you bought the buildings and ensured you had the warehouse space for large amounts of stock. Was the plan always that kind of expansion?

Ian: Yes, I think so. I live nearby, it's a great area, we're on the beach and we needed a really big building. There aren't many places the size of an aircraft hangar near Shoeburyness -this was the only one. It was totally derelict and hadn't been used for 30 years. We spent more on restoring the building back to its former glory than the building was actually worth, but for us it's perfect. We can come to work here in a building we are proud of; it's quirky, it's on the beach - it couldn't get any better.

Going back to stock-holding, so many people in Europe claim to be the biggest, with sadly limited stock holdings, we have 160,000 items in stock ready to ship and during summer ship on average over one thousand orders a day. This is really key to us, if you come to our website or shop, we have everything you need to get out on the water, which is what our job is.

Mark: You work with many of the big brands within the marine and watersports industry and one of those is Zhik, where you have built up a relationship and increased turnover of their products. How do you build those relationships?

Ian: I think Zhik is a really interesting brand. It's a high-tech brand that has really come on in the last few years. If you're at the pinnacle of your sport you know Zhik, but if you're like me, a keen amateur sailor, you might not have heard of them. For us, the focus was working with them on their really high performance ranges and trying to tone it down to make it more applicable to guys like myself, the mainstream, rather than just the sailors coming first across the finish line every time. I think this has worked well for us as we now have a Zhik mainstream high performance range that's not going to let you down. If you're only out on the water for three or four hours, to make the most of it you have to have the right kit it's as simple as that.

Mark: Tristan, WetsuitOutlet.co.uk really is a unique retail company. Was it an eye-opener when you first started working with them?

Tristan Hutt: It was amazing. I have been doing this for four or five years and had seen a lot of different set-ups. It's just phenomenal to find a marine hub of this scale on the East Coast when the South Coast gets so much attention. It blew me away when I first came here. The level of professionalism and the systems they have in place mean they can deliver retail in a way I have never seen.

Mark: Ian, the people we have seen around the building are all passionate about watersports and what they are doing how do you grow a business but keep that ethos?

Ian: I think the identity of the business is really important. My biggest fear was starting with Peter and myself and growing to employ 70 people; we would lose that shared passion for getting people on or into the water. We don't have an official induction process, but everyone here is really into it. Our German speaking customer support team were new to watersports themselves and we had to train them up. Going through that transition, interestingly, Katrina actually appeared in Naish SUP's promotional video which was a surprise to all of us! It's infectious, and everything we do about getting people on or into the water rubs off on the team here.

Mark: Do you think it's that hands on approach to the business that works? Going around as we have done today, you know every single area of the business is that what keeps it on track?

Ian: Yes everyone here does every role, we understand where everything is, what it is & what it does and during any downtime we are out on the water as well. There isn't a piece of clothing in this building that we haven't had a really good look at, given feedback to the manufacturers about ways we think it can be better, and if we find anything we don't like it goes straight back. We only stock products we really like & believe in.

Mark: Zhik is a great example of a brand that works with its team sailors to make sure their kit is constantly evolving. When you have a retailer that has the same attitude it must be a huge bonus.

Tristan: Yes, it's great that so many of the staff here are so passionate about the products, it helps drive the development of new gear and gives informed feedback. The team here really know what they are talking about. Working with a brand that understands the industry as WetsuitOutlet.co.uk does definitely contributes to the great position they are in.

Mark: Ian, you mentioned German speakers. Your growth strategy is based on creating native websites for the different regions you work with, so that you can create an experience for those buyers which is familiar to them. Is that how you are continuing to expand?

Ian: Very much so. We are dominant in exports and sell around the world. I think having native speakers is so important, it's the same as having native websites, and without that you aren't really there for the overseas customers. It's for this reason we have German, French, Spanish and Italian native speakers.

We never have been a 'pile it high, sell it cheap' retailer. We have always been focused on getting the right products to people and having native speakers is essential to that.

Mark: You often hear of people in the music industry saying, "OK, I'm great in the UK but I need to crack the US." Is that the next target market for you?

Ian: Yes, I think so. There are 326 million people in the US, but what people don't realise is that we are strong in the US already and have been for a number of years. This year we are opening up in the US, getting our boots on the ground. We're conflicted on location, but I reckon within two or three years we will have three locations open due to the sheer size of the country.

Mark: As I walked around the warehouse, I was struck by the ecological steps you have taken, such as the biomass boiler and the cardboard being palleted and recycled straight away. Has that been a decision you have made from a personal passion or business interest, or a combination of both?

Ian: We've done it from day one and not thought about it. I live on the beach and I see it every single day. When we restored this building, everything we did - from the yard outside made from recycled road scrapings, LED lighting to the biomass boiler - was just obvious to us and we didn't understand why other people didn't look at the environmental factors. As time has gone on, the concern about plastics in our seas and the concern about the environment has become a bigger draw for people; we have done it from day one. We have won environmental awards, and a restoration award for the work we have done and how we run our business, and it's something we are very proud of.

Mark: It must be heartening for you to see Zhik bringing out an eco-wetsuit that, while not yet perfect in terms of creating a wetsuit with a small ecological footprint, is such a good step in the right direction.

Ian: Yes, it's really important. Sadly, anything you make is going to have an ecological footprint so we do have to pay the environmental price to actually make these products. I think what's important is to find a product with the least impact possible, and as time goes on, they will get better. They aren't perfect but are going in the right direction. We're also very keen to find products with good longevity - not great when you're selling them but it's the right thing to do. If your wetsuit or jacket lasts three to five years and you've worn it to death, that's great. What concerns me more are low quality products that don't last very long and are not compostable and are going to be in landfill. That's the biggest concern for the environment. Premier products should last three to five years, and new generation products should be made with a lower environmental footprint.

Mark: So, if you've got a premium brand that's doing as much as they can to lower their environmental impact, and if you can have a long lasting product that has that in its DNA from the word go, that's a much better situation.

Ian and Tristan, many thanks for your time seeing how you work together and understanding how two marine brands can share so many values.

Find out more...

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