Peter Slee
Miranda Dobson

Member Article

Behind the Business with Spark eCommerce

**Peter Slee is managing director of Spark eCommerce Group, which is made up of contact centre service provider, Spark Response, and eCommerce retailer, Spark Etail.

The Gateshead-based company, which employs up to 300 people during its peak season, services major high street names including Toys R Us and FitFlop alongside international businesses Best Direct and Nappor and a number of independent retailers including Micro Scooters and Kids Playstore.

Peter joined the company in 2003 and, together with his co-director Noel Lambert, has turned it from a loss making business to an established brand with an anticipated group turnover of £14m and sustained profitability since 2007. He became managing director at the company in 2006.

Bdaily spoke to Peter to go behind the business.**

What is your biggest achievement over the past 12 months?

The last twelve months have been successful for us for a number of reasons – expansion, contract wins, formation of the eCommerce group, reaching a financial milestone and winning two major awards on the back of all this.

We took on an additional 40,000 square feet unit in September after winning a large-scale fulfilment campaign and seeing that unit approach capacity within its first few months was a big achievement. We increased our annual order volumes and despatched over £200 million in retail sales for our clients. And we achieved £1 million EBITDA, which was a big milestone for us and something we believe we can sustain.

Formation of the Spark eCommerce group was significant for us. We purchased Ethical Superstore in 2011, bringing a whole new skill set into the business, to form Spark Etail, which now sits alongside Spark Response under the group banner.

It was also a great year for us culturally as we picked up two major industry awards. In the summer, we were presented with the Large Business accolade at Service Network’s Culture for Success Awards. We were also named winner of the inaugural Outsourced Contact Centre of the Year category at the North East Contact Centre Awards in November.

What key challenges has your company recently faced?

One of the key things for us as a fulfilment provider over recent years has been the re-shaping of the business and development of HR strategies in response to being a heavily seasonal operation.

We can output up to 50 per cent of our annual volumes in the last four months of the year, and the challenge for us has been to shape our business around our seasonality and adapt to it, as to some degree we know we can’t change it. eCommerce is always likely to be a highly seasonal industry.

So what have we done to adapt? We’ve restructured our working hours to incorporate high and low seasons and we’ve developed strategic partnerships that allow us to flex in and out of season.

And I guess becoming a retailer has thrown positive challenges our way. As an outsourced service provider, we have always had to support our clients in dealing with the challenges of a competitive and fast-moving retail marketplace.

Traditionally, we handled the orders and the customer experience side of things while the client focused on the challenges of product development, innovation and sales and marketing. Since purchasing Ethical Superstore and forming Spark Etail, we too are a retailer so those challenges have become our challenges.

In addition, a major challenge for us was withdrawing from the outbound contact centre market in 2011, specifically working in the utilities sector. Following our withdrawal, we’ve carried out a number of pilots and one-off campaigns, which have allowed us to focus on new markets and work with clients in growth sectors and with a progressive product base.

Environmental, telecoms and consumer technologies markets all have what you might call products of the future, and that’s what the outbound offering at Spark will be about as we make an imminent return. We know we have the right technology, the right people and cultural fit is a given so it’s now about finding the right brands to partner with.

What is your most important focus for the coming year, and what do you hope to achieve?

As a business our focus is on establishing ourselves an eCommerce leader. There aren’t many companies in the outsourcing sector that provide both contact centre and fulfilment services and do both well. There are even fewer who can provide eCommerce development and marketing support, which we do via the Spark Etail team.

Strengthening our Etail brands and becoming the UK’s leading ethical retailer is an obvious goal and, if we can continue to adapt to the market and engage more with our customer base, then we’re confident we’ll achieve great things for the company.

What excites you most about your industry and business?

Being involved in such a progressive industry and giving prominence to eCommerce in the North East. A little known fact; the first recorded internet home shopping order was placed in Gateshead, so it excites me to know that we’re based almost at the birthplace of our industry.

What also excites me about our business is our ability to adapt, our approach to winning new business and exploring new markets and, above all, our culture. We have the best staff retention in our sector and that’s reflected in both the service we provide and the way we operate as a team.

What will the “next big thing“ be in your industry, and how do you plan to handle it?

It sounds obvious, but eCommerce is the current big thing, and will continue to grow – we need to be ready for that. Almost half of the world’s population is expected to be using the internet this year and in 2012, global eCommerce sales topped $1 trillion for the first time. That’s expected to rise to $1.2 trillion this year.

Within the eCommerce sector, mobile technology is a big thing right now and we’ll see a major shift in the way our business is handled at both ends, in terms of how customers are placing their orders and how we’re handling deliveries and customer services.

Mobile and tablet eCommerce sales are growing massively and are expected to reach $119 billion globally by 2015 – massive growth from $1.2 billion in 2009. We’ve seen this happen before with the evolution from post to phone to web and we know how rapidly it happens. Are we prepared for it? I like to think so.

We expect to see our brands and our clients develop more web friendly websites and apps, whilst our contact centre will respond to the modern customer via social media, and our carrier partners will become more mobile savvy. Customers will see more text, app and mobile site based tracking functionality become the norm in the next few years.

Spark has grown with the industry. Since being founded as a direct mail specialist, we’ve lived through response handling, the booming 80s catalogue industry, telephone orderlines dominating home shopping in the 90s, the emergence of online shopping in the late 90s and 2000s and the rapidly evolving technologies of recent years. So it’s without doubt that we’ll continue to adapt and evolve, and that excites me.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Miranda Dobson .

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