BlackStar: e-tail giant

Emerging UK e-tailer, the Belfast-based BlackStar, is proving that the internet is a busy place when it comes to selling video. Director and founder Jeremy Glover reveals the recipe for success.

Ask Jeremy Glover what makes his video e-tail business tick and you’ll soon be introduced to the concept of ‘passion pockets’. Passion pockets are extremely important to Glover and BlackStar, the expanding clicks and mortar company he founded back in 1998.

He believes that one of the strengths of an internet-based video sales operation is the ability to cater for shoppers’ niche needs. Therefore the ability to pinpoint people’s passion pockets is paramount. And with new shoppers signing on to the site at the rate of 15,000 per month, adding to an existing database of 120,000 paying customers and 300,000 pre-orders on the books at any given time, it would seem that BlackStar is getting it right. In fact, the e-tailer is so enthusiastic about catering for customers’ specific needs that it even offers a hunt service to track down rare items.

The first inklings of what would become BlackStar can be traced back to 1997 when Glover got talking with the two people who were to become his partners, Tony Bowden and Darryl Collins. “We all saw this internet thing happening and thought this is a great space to be in and we have to do something,” explains Glover. “As a frustrated actor, the idea of video shop really appealed to me. In early 1998 we were going round the investors in the City and no one knew about the internet space at all – it was pre the hype (and of course the crash) and it was very, very difficult to raise money. So we thought we would set up the business, show revenue coming in and prove it can be done.”

Glover was also attracted to a virtual video shop because – unlike with books and CDs – Britons weren’t buying from the US because of all the incompatibility between PAL and NTSC. With no investment forthcoming, Glover and and co decided to go it alone. The video shop was put together in just seven days and was up and running on March 8 1998.

Says Glover: “Tony programmed it, Darryl got hold of various wholesalers to set up accounts to source product and with my background as an advertising agency creative director I did a rough design. “We asked people right from the outset what they felt about the shop so a lot of the features in the store now were recommended by customers. It’s very much about feedback and contribution. We had 55 customers in our first month and 45 of them still shop with us.”

Glover is acutely aware that there remains within the video industry some fierce resistance to the concept of internet shopping. “I think at the top of these companies there is still a fear about the internet – will it destroy the industry?” Glover believes it will be rental video which is worst hit by upcoming downloadable formats and that the desire to own – bolstered by the burgeoning DVD market – will assure the good health of the retail industry.

Of DVD he says: “It’s digital, it lasts longer, it’s smaller, it’s more collectible and there are extras. We were aware of DVD from the start. We took the view that it wasn’t going to be another LaserDisc – a format that will come and go – and there was very much the sense that there was a parallel with the CD. And I think what’s happening on the hardware side – especially with PlayStation 2 – will really help and by the end of the year DVD is going to be really taking off. Last Christmas we were doubling DVD sales every month for four months on the trot. It’s very exciting for us.”

The original BlackStar site may have been a bit of a rush job but since then there has been plenty of time for refinement and a new design was launched only last month. “You’ve always got to keep on moving forward with an on-line store,” Glover explains. “You need to take it slowly but keep things fresh – keep it recognisable but advancing.” The designers have jettisoned the site’s muted blue and yellow colouring in favour of a clean black and white look: “One of our strengths has been the simplicity and functionality of the site – being able to get the product you want quickly,” Glover continues. “Functionality has been very important because if it takes too long to find what you want you’ll leave.”

In a recent independent survey BlackStar came out on top for the services it provides. Glover is not planning any industry-shaking price or range promotions but has a lot of faith in the store’s key offer – a 20% discount on pre-orders delivered on day of release, postage free. “It really incentivises people to buy from us. It’s worked very well especially with fans of things like Star Trek and the other collectible series. We also look at value added elements such as posters and guides. “People expect the highest of standards on the internet and a lot of that’s to do with the fact that they’re not dealing with humans. Once customers get to know us they will mail people by name in Customer Care. When they know it’s humans working here they tend to be a little more flexible. It’s very important that we personalise the service.”

And that brings us back to passion pockets: “Fan sites send us wonderful amounts of business – Buffy sites and stuff like that. It would have been impossible to get hold of all those passion pocket people before the internet. Manchester City is another example of passion pocket where we can use our on-line marketing to highlight the product. “We cater for gay and lesbian shoppers as well – splitting the offering into sub-categories makes browsing very easy. Again this is all about passion. It’s what you might find in a very, very specialist store but there’s no way in a million years that you’re going to find it in a traditional high street store no matter how big it is. And they’re certainly not going to have 35 different areas in their store which are so focussed. But with the power of the internet we can do this.”

Glover regards BlackStar as being in competition across the board: “Our competitors are the high street and other e-tailers. Eighty five percent of the market is still in the high street so we have to look at Virgin and HMV and say those guys are competitors. At the end of the day we want a share of everything. In addition to competing for business, Glover is confident that e-tailing is a growing business – and people access the site as a resource just to get hold of the extensive Videolog listings.

From its humble beginnings, BlackStar has enjoyed constant growth and has attracted the finance necessary to achieve it. The builder’s yard where the story began has been left behind in favour of new spacious Belfast offices and a 10,000 sq ft warehouse to house the stock – around 95 percent of orders are shipped within 24 hours. But one thing that remains perfectly intact is, of course, the passion.

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