Rob McNair from the Tiso Group – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan:  [0:03] Hi, I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems, and this is the Ecommerce podcast. Today I’m talking to Rob McNair from the Tiso Group in the UK. Hi, Rob. Welcome.

Rob McNair:  [0:12] Hi, Shaun. Thanks for having me.

Shaun:  [0:14] Now, traditional first question. What was the first thing you ever bought online?

Rob:  [0:19] I was thinking about this, and I think the first thing I ever bought was a watch, and it was one of those funky ones with the big leather strap and the square face to it. I thought it was pretty sharp at the time, and I looked at the images on the site, and it looked quite good, and I bought it. [0:38] Basically, it came out of the box, and it was pretty big, probably too big for me.

Shaun:  [0:42] [laughs]

Rob:  [0:45] I’m a pretty small guy, so it looked a bit ridiculous, but I couldn’t be asked to return it, so I started using it and wearing it. I think that was my first online experience, and I guess that goes to show you that product images and all that type of functionality [laughs] is a good thing to have on a site.

Shaun:  [1:00] Yes. And can you remember which site that was from?

Rob:  [1:03] I can’t.

Shaun:  [1:04] You can’t.

Rob:  [1:05] And there you go, so I obviously didn’t go back.

Shaun:  [1:06] No, no. And what was the most recent thing you bought online?

Rob:  [1:12] I actually got a MacBook online with Apple itself. I’ve done the switch over now. I’m full on Mac. I’m all synced up with my iPhone and everything, so I’m quite enjoying it.

Shaun:  [1:27] Yeah, great. And how was the buying experience on Apple?

Rob:  [1:32] Well, I’m pretty thorough in my research, so I actually went to their site. They’ve a lot of good content there. Pretty good reviews, and they’ve got some unbiased ones, and some negative ones. I actually went into one of their stores as well, because I wasn’t sure what size laptop I wanted, or if I actually wanted their iMac. So, I went in, and a consultant helped me, and it was actually a pretty good experience. [1:58] And I left, but then I was still unsure on what size and specs I wanted, and so I went to Amazon, found reviews there, read through reviews there. I actually went to Best Buy, and I downloaded their app for reviews, went through some reviews there. So, ended up coming out with the 13″ base level model, and I’m really happy. And then I’ve got an LED screen, so it’s a nice little setup.

Shaun:  [2:26] Excellent. It sounds like you’re obviously one of these shoppers that spends a lot of time researching for a big item like a computer.

Rob:  [2:34] Yes. You’ve got to, don’t you? I don’t want to be that guy looks back and has it all wrong.

Shaun:  [2:40] Yes. It brings in some interesting subjects around e‑commerce, particularly the importance of reviews, but also the importance of physical stores and how they can complement an online store.

Rob:  [2:54] Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, really, and that’s what the Tiso Group can offer our customers. It started off as a bricks and mortar, and we’re really getting to the online space, but fundamentally, the kit ‑ and we’ll go into that later ‑ but, it’s stuff you have to try on. It’s stuff that you need to speak to somebody about. Even though it’s a small value item, it’s one of those things, so it certainly has value having a store, even though it’s a costly exercise.

Shaun:  [3:24] Right. So, before we go into that, can you give us some background on yourself?

Rob:  [3:30] Sure. Sure. I’m originally from Vancouver, so you can maybe hear some strange mixture of Scottish and Irish and Canadian. I’ve been over here in the UK in Edinburgh for four years now, but I graduated as a commerce marketing graduate. [3:50] And then I actually ended up being lucky to work for a young startup firm in Vancouver called Explorax, and they did sort of one of the first easy to use WizzyWig CMS systems.

Shaun:  [4:03] Right.

Rob:  [4:05] WizzyWig ‑ “What you see is what you get.” So that was quite good, and it took off quite well. [4:11] They’re actually now rebranded as It’s an Adobe AIR app for developers. It’s got a nice Dreamweaver extension into it. They’re actually doing quite well over there. I stay in touch with them. They’re at the Adobe MAX conferences in San Francisco and it’s taking off quite well for them. That was kind of my first step into the digital realm, which was quite a good one.

[4:37] Then I came over to the UK and got a job at bigmouthmedia, a digital agency there. I was one of 15 employees when they started, and I dealt mainly in the SEO side of things.

Shaun:  [4:51] Yes.

Rob:  [4:52] I ended up doing that and working for some of the biggest brands in the UK, which was phenomenal, running their SEO campaigns. And then my role developed into managing a team, and then going into different channels and working on different types of things, affiliate display, social media, and all of that. [5:14] And then I just decided, you know what, I had that experience, and I was there for three years, and I really wanted to go client side and see how that was and really apply a strategy, from start to finish, which is one thing that I just hadn’t done previously. So, I ended up working for Tiso Group. They’re one of the largest outdoor retailers in Scotland, so they’re well known here.

[5:42] So, it was a good experience, and they’re really embracing the whole online thing, and my approach is, online doesn’t have to be a technical thing. Certainly there’s technical ways of implementing it, but it’s pretty straight forward. If you’re dealing with a store, you’re optimizing your products. You’re moving them around the store. I’m talking offline stuff. And you’re trying to do that online as well. They’re really taking that on board, and we’re seeing some pretty good growth this year.

Shaun:  [6:13] Excellent. So, tell me a little bit more about the Tiso Group. They sell outdoor apparel?

Rob:  [6:22] Yes. So, they’re an outdoor specialist. We also own a company called Alpine Bikes, which is a mountain bike company, and there’s another store in the Lake District, called George Fisher, and they’re quite successful, but they operate under their own brand there.

Shaun:  [6:38] And how many stores do you have in total? How many physical stores?

Rob:  [6:42] In total, there’s 20 stores.

Shaun:  [6:44] Twenty stores. OK, great.

Rob:  [6:45] So, I believe it’s 13 Tiso throughout Scotland, northern England, Ireland. So, if you’re from Scotland, you know of Tiso. Alpine Bikes also is really popular, and they’re just in Scotland, and like I said, George Fisher. Yes, basically, the company really focuses on knowledge of the products and really the customer service, and it sounds cliche, but it’s true. [7:19] In our space, there’s a lot competitors that are discounters, so we’re quite unique in the fact that we don’t heavily discount, but we have a huge range of stock which can suit the beginner to the intermediate to scaling huge heights. So, that’s kind of where we bring value, and it is the old school way of doing it, but it’s coming sort of retro or fashionable again to provide that type of service, and especially in social media space and the amount of voice the consumer has these days. It really is to our advantage.

Shaun:  [7:59] Right. That’s really interesting. So, the stores sort of pride themselves, or have historically prided themselves on the broad range of products and the in‑depth knowledge. So, how are you translating that into the online experience?

Rob:  [8:14] Yes, so, I came on board about a year ago, and I guess it’s one of those things where you have a clean slate. They really hadn’t had much of an e‑commerce program before. They did have site. They were making sales, but they had nobody driving it, so that was one of the reasons why I came on board other than I was a customer myself. [8:39] So, we did. We had exactly that. We wanted to translate the in store experience online, and there’s a lot of stores trying to do it. It’s a very hard thing to do. But, obviously, we wanted to leverage our knowledge from the staff, so we implemented Ratings and Reviews.

[8:56] We’re using Bazaarvoice solution for that, which has just been implemented, and their service is quite unique, because they offer more of a marketing spin on it. So, yes, they have the plug‑in, and the app, and they customize it, but they bring value from marketing.

[9:15] So, right now, we’re trying to really promote the reviews, because not a lot of the customers know about it, but we’re also going to be leveraging our staff knowledge, so we’ve actually started to do that. We have an Ask and Answer service as well as the Rating and Reviews.

[9:30] So we’ve had actually more success on the Ask and Answer at the moment. People are asking pretty technical questions, and I’m getting our buying team involved in answering those questions, so within our buying team, we have people that specialize in different category groups, so we’re actually getting them involved to help us answer the questions without going into too much detail. But, obviously, we’re doing it front and center to the consumer, so we have a badge for the staff stuff, and we’re trying to let the customers do the reviews, but we might feature a few products and make it known that this is a Tiso recommendation.

Shaun:  [10:09] Right. OK. I was going to ask about that when you said you were getting your staff involved in the reviews, and I mean, the question and answers. But I think being up front that this is a staff review of the product, I think that’s perfect, because you’re open, and then people know the other reviews are sort of from genuine customers. But it also lets the staff show their knowledge, and they’ve probably got a bit of passion around some of the outdoor sports, and that can come through and well.

Rob:  [10:44] Yes and, to be honest, a lot of people were really excited about putting some reviews on, but it’s a fine line, and the majority of the reviews we want to come from our user base. Our users, other than other competitors in our space, I believe are a lot more knowledgeable, because our gear is a little bit more technical. So, we can leverage a lot of knowledge that our customers already have on our site, which is a huge quick win for us and our customers. [11:14] So, we can bring on our expertise as a company to the Ask and Answer services, but we can also leverage our customer voice, which actually in‑store you really can’t do. So, we’re doing that with the reviews. We’re also trying to be more dynamic in terms of our email communication and segmenting and stuff, but I won’t really go into that.

[11:38] But also, the site search was a huge issue for the site. When I first came on, I was tasked with putting a quick win list together, and that was one of the major problems. I think before, you could search for “rucksack” and you would get climbing shoes, and we actually had a few complaints where our customers were livid that it was unbelievable, and that we didn’t have something that actually worked and fair enough.

[12:04] So, we listened, and we looked at different vendors, but we ended obviously picking the SLI solution. And the reason we did that, although I guess there’s a lot of reasons, and I won’t really go into it, but the fact that it was a plug‑in solution, because we’re looking to change platforms, and we’re going to be changing platforms in the new year, so all of this could be recreated and done externally which is brilliant.

[12:31] It could be set up in literally a week, I think, it took. You just used our styling and used our feed and integrated it all into the site. And the functionality really, and I think the navigation is quite cumbersome. There’s so much product to find, and we did the research on how many people were using our site search and figures were something like 20 percent were using our site search straightaway, and 33 percent of people purchasing used our site search.

[13:12] So, obviously, a fundamental to any quick win solution is when you nail that, and you’ve got yourself a good little ROI thing to show the boss. So, the filter thing was a huge win for us. You could only filter by the navigation, so we’ve added price filtering.

[13:35] We’ve added, obviously, the merchandising element to it, which ranks products on popularity, which is great, because before we would have had to rely on tags to do that, which just wouldn’t have worked. And even filtering by color, we couldn’t do that on the site, so, anyway that was a nice thing. And like I said, we have 3,000 products, so it was giving the user tools to find what they want and get out as fast as they could.

Shaun:  [14:04] I’m pleased that’s all gone so well for you. That sounds great.

Rob:  [14:09] Yes.

Shaun:  [14:10] Now, you mentioned you’re moving to a new platform. Can you tell me a little bit about the reasons behind that and what platform you’re moving to?

Rob:  [14:20] Sure. We’ve short‑listed a number of platforms. The reason being is, we’re using a bespoke solution by sort of a boutique agency in Glasgow, so we’re looking for a scalable platform which can actually control three, four of our sites with one interface and integrating our inventory and giving the power really to run all the three sites without any issues, looking to build promotions into them and so on. [14:55] We’re looking to get an invitation to tender in about six months and then roll on from there. Yes, that’s a work in progress, but anything that we’ve done this year, we’ve really tried to stop us from developing on the existing site, obviously, because you’re basically, throwing money away.

Shaun:  [15:16] Right.

Rob:  [15:18] We’ve added little bits here like a Wish List functionality for people, and a few promotional things, but, yes, that’s kind of where we’re at with that, but we’re looking at the top suppliers at the moment, but it’s just a case of when you’re an SME or a smaller player, obviously cost is the issue.

Shaun:  [15:41] Yes, absolutely. Now, with your search engine optimization background from your experience at bigmouth, is that something you’re concentrating on at the Tiso Group?

Rob:  [15:55] Yes, actually, Tiso used to work at bigmouthmedia, or use bigmouthmedia. So, when I was actually on, I never ran that account, so there was a little bit of SEO done, and I think it was in good standard, but things have changed in a couple years, so we’re really looking at how we can change it up. [16:28] We get a lot of traffic through our natural search, but it’s one thing that we really need to do in the new year. The optimization has taken place, the link building has taken place, but I think we need to get back on that train really this year and polish it up a bit more. Things have changed. Google‑based feeds have changed, and there’s a lot more we can be doing.

Shaun:  [16:53] Now, I had one question around the search engine optimization that I thought a company like yours may be able to leverage with physical stores. Are you able to leverage the addresses of those physical stores to help with local search engine optimization?

Rob:  [17:09] Yes, we’re totally optimized. That was one of the first things we did when I came on board was to get the local listings optimized, and there’s ways of doing that. It’s pretty simple. You just need to make sure your key words are in your title. [17:28] There’s other factors obviously. First to do it within your space and so on, but if companies haven’t done that yet that are listening, it’s a really quick win and huge visibility. And there’s tips online on how to do that.

Shaun:  [17:46] Yes.

Rob:  [17:50] Yes, we’re also looking at using the site search tool, coming back to that again, for SEO, so what we’re looking to do is, you guys have started to make your popular pages indexable by search engines and looking to give extra exposure, making sure search engines know about those pages through sitemap.XML, and including the new robots.txt files so that Bing and Yahoo! Can find that content as well. [18:24] The category level pages that Tiso Group has set up, they’re so rich in content, because when you hover over a product, one of a 10 product, for example, which sits on one page of a category ‑‑ say it’s climbing ‑‑ our snippet content is actually there, and that page includes the snippet content which to the user looks like it’s a pop‑up, but actually to a search engine it’s static content that sits within that page.

[18:58] And we’re marking them up with header tags, and I was looking at one of the customer reports that you guys do, and I was seeing some key word successes on terms that are maybe long tail to us, or they’re keyword gaps that we wouldn’t have thought about.

[19:18] So, that’s proof that if you make your content accessible, and it’s not duplicating content, which it isn’t, because our category pages are all different to the product pages, and so on. We’re bringing in extra traffic. Now, it’s early days, but like I said, we’re already seeing some successes, so I think there’s some things to build on from the SEO perspective using the SLI service. I also think, as a strategy going forward, it’s a good idea to actually pick the keyword gaps.

[19:54] So, actually looking at our keywords that we actually optimized for and then building the gaps around those, that we wouldn’t particularly be targeting to drive more traffic. Right now we’re letting the user pick our keyword gap pages because that’s what they’re looking for, which in itself is good.

[20:20] But, we could be more calculated in what we’re doing and look at building out the gaps. Some of the category pages that are on the SLI site, compared to the Tiso site, are a lot more keyword rich. But they do set on a sub domain. It’s interesting to see that traffic come through.

Shaun:  [20:43] Fantastic. Do you have any kind of site that you look to for ideas?

Rob:  [20:55] To be honest with you, I don’t. No. I would like to think I know the good functionalities of e‑commerce sites. Yes, Amazon does probably does a lot of things you want do. I don’t really like a few of the things. There’s other sites like ASOS which all of us e‑commerce people model a lot of our campaigns from. [21:29] I don’t really worship one site. I do like one site, that is our Canadian counterpart really in terms of the outdoor clothing market, and they dominate Canada. It’s called I don’t necessarily like their e‑commerce approach, but the way that they are harnessing their community, and creating really interactive areas to their site. They have dedicated community areas and dedicated areas, and they’re really getting people involved in video campaigns and so on. From a usability side, I couldn’t say.

Shaun:  [22:12] OK. That’s really interesting what you’re saying about How are they getting the community involved? Is it through forums? You mentioned video. They have got user generated video on the site?

Rob:  [22:26] Yeah. They’ve just done a YouTube competition, basically so you can just submit your video. So you embed it in your site, and they have their users that vote on it. It’s fairly well received. That’s just one of the ways they are getting people involved and you can vote on it. They have a dedicated group on Facebook and so on. [22:52] But they also have a good learning area and there’s a lot of things they do. They do gear swaps and so on. It’s slightly different to the Tiso model because it is a cooperative and you do pay a fiver to be a member. So, there is that ownership to it, but what’s a fiver?

[23:12] They do have a community that’s really behind them that basically drives it. They facilitate what the community wants. We, as Tiso try and do very similar. In terms of the shopping experience, it’s fairly decent and they’ve got reviews and so on. I think from a community stand point it gives people, sort of what they need but ASOS does a great job.

[23:39] I think in terms of promotions, instead of following what Stites are doing, I really use Twitter to pull out the new things. It’s really hard to miss, if you have the right people you’re following. It’s hard to miss things that are happening. Even if you follow a specific website, or Internet retailing ‑ a brilliant site ‑ you might miss out on tips someone else just threw out there that all of a sudden starts to pick up steam and you get wind of it.

[24:20] So, I really use Twitter to gather all of my knowledge, really in general, but also with e‑commerce, I follow a lot of e‑commerce professionals as well. In terms of promotions I tend to follow companies on Facebook and I really try and see what they’re up to. ASOS is quite good at doing that.

[24:44] There’s a company in Canada called Lululemon. They do yoga gear and I think they’re moving into the U.K. They do fantastic stuff with their Facebook account.

Shaun:  [24:57] I’m familiar with them actually, yeah.

Rob:  [24:59] Yeah. Because they’re in New Zealand and Australia, I believe, as well.

Shaun:  [25:04] I didn’t know that. I know they’ve a customer base in the U.S., which is how I’m a familiar with them.

Rob:  [25:13] I’m a big fan of what they do, but also their gear. It’s quite a big thing in Vancouver, where I’m from. They just engage, and they engage well. Engage is such an over said word but it really is the case and they take feedback really well. Some of their threads, they’ll make an announcement. They’ll add a Wish List and they might have like 300 people commenting. That’s a good one just to follow. I just follow random brands and see what they’re up to.

Shaun:  [25:47] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. How much of that user engagement are you looking to do on the Tiso site? Beyond the reviews and the questions and answers that you’ve already implemented.

Rob:  [26:04] We’re active on Twitter and Facebook. We’re trying to get more active, we’re just trying to build that out. It was basically a man power before it to get that active. We haven’t done a huge amount, to be honest. In the next year, we’re going to be really ramping that up and giving more benefit to our users as well. [26:33] When you have somebody fanning a brand, you have a really engaged user that wants to hear what you have to say. But you also have to give them incentive and there’s some studies out there recently that the top thing that people join a fan page for is promotions. So, we have got to get active on that, we have to be using our voucher code. A little bit. Track them, see how it goes.

[27:02] But in terms of engagement, outside the online world, we’re really engaged in terms of putting on events and lectures with some of the best climbers. Tiso brand is bringing in John Muir Trust partners and so on. So, in terms of the community, outside the online world, they’re really really in there.

Shaun:  [27:34] And you’re looking to bring some of that stuff online? Like if there’s a lecture by someone like that. Could it be videoed, put online and promoted online?

Rob:  [27:45] Yeah, sorry. We’re looking to bring that in. It’s just a more of a challenge from the lecture point of view because they don’t want to go the old school way of not wanting that content to leave, without people paying for it. But we looked into podcasting and so on. I guess this year has just been about implementing user‑friendly elements to the site. Get the conversion rate up. Then we can just start to really interact with our audience.

Shaun:  [28:15] Excellent. Well, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate, but there’s some exciting things coming up. So, if that’s OK. We’ll wrap it up there, but I just want to thank you very much for your time today, Rob.

Rob:  [28:28] Sure.

Shaun:  [28:29] You’ve given us a lot of really good insights there, and in particular, I like the way you’re following other brands that you admire on Twitter and paying attention to what they’re doing. That’s really good to see.

Rob:  [28:43] And also your competitors as well.

Shaun:  [28:45] Yeah, absolutely.

Rob:  [28:46] What I will do, before you wrap up is put together a list of e‑commerce people that I follow, and people could possibly tap into that list on Twitter.

Shaun:  [29:01] OK, great. That would be great. So what’s your Twitter address?

Rob:  [29:05] It’s Robbrucemcnair. One word. But I also work as director of mycleveragency. So that’s We’ll put the list on that as well, so that’s handled. Mycleveragency. And we do lots of social media and SEO stuff. We’re always open to speaking to people. [29:30] [music]

Shaun:  [29:31] Excellent. Thank you very much, Rob, for your time today. I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems and that is the Ecommerce Podcast. Tune in next time.