New Zealanders Jen Ferguson and Glenn Williams didn’t have big ambitions to become entrepreneurs when they moved to London in 2012. But two years later, they quit their jobs and opened an independent craft beer, hot sauce and wine shop in Peckham. “We wanted to surround ourselves with the things we love the most,” Ferguson says about Hop Burns & Black. “And see if we could get other people excited about them as well.”
Fast-forward eight years and the co-founders have expanded their range to include cider and small-batch spirits, opened up a second site in Deptford, published an award-winning beer and food cookbook, and launched a thriving subscription business.
It’s an uplifting story during what’s been a difficult few years for independent retailers. The Covid-19 pandemic caused an average of 48 shops, restaurants and other hospitality venues to close every day in the UK during 2020. But there were upsides too, with customers recognising the importance of supporting their local small businesses. A survey last year found that nearly two-thirds of consumers in the UK chose to buy closer to home in the previous year, leading to a 63% rise in spending at specialist food and drink stores. Half said they expected to continue doing so.
When lockdown hit, Ferguson and Williams took the decision to close their two shops and focus their attention on the online store and home deliveries. “More than anything, it showed that being nimble and able to adapt really quickly, keeping a cool head under difficult circumstances, has been key to surviving and thriving,” Ferguson says about the pandemic. “During that first lockdown, the subscription service grew exponentially because people wanted to ensure they’d get this constant supply of things they enjoyed and missed during such a strange time.” Today, Hop Burns & Black has three subscription box options for beer, natural wine and hot sauce, which continue to be popular.
Audience growth has largely come organically, albeit with some support from online advertising. The team is obsessive about customer retention, and launched their Beer Miles customer loyalty programme to keep shoppers coming back. Today, customers collect points to put towards rewards such as T-shirts, glassware and discounts off their next purchase. “It gives us an enormous database we can reach out to,” Ferguson adds.
A weekly newsletter was launched in 2015 to support the Beer Miles programme. It’s a labour of love for Ferguson who keeps notes during the week to remind her what to include before she sends it via Mailchimp every Thursday morning. “Initially our motivation was to communicate the personality behind our business,” she says. “We think of ourselves as more than a shop selling beer, wine and hot sauce. The newsletter gives us a chance to highlight what we’re doing and why.”
As well as new products, favourite producers and shop news, Hop Burns & Black also commissions professional beer and food writers, such as Matt Curtis and Claire Bullen, who each contribute a monthly column. Ferguson makes the newsletter skimmable, with bold headings and colour photos, and makes everything clickable so that readers have lots of opportunities to head to the website. “And once they’re there, it might result in a sale,” she says.
The newsletter has also been helpful in other ways, for advertising staff vacancies, or challenging subscribers to find the business a suitable site for a new shop. That’s what happened before the duo secured the Deptford store in 2018. “We offered a finder’s fee and got lots of good leads,” Ferguson says. “It was a nice little ego stroke to hear how many people were excited about having a branch close to their home.”
Newsletter subscribers are enjoying having that close connection with the brand too. Ferguson says a lot of customers will mention they’ve been reading it when they come into the shop, or reply with supportive comments by email. It’s also having a big impact on sales. “We see a spike in online sales and web traffic once the newsletter has gone out,” she says. “We didn’t go out with a defined brand voice or strategy. We just write about what we feel and what interests us.”
It’s those personal connections with customers that Ferguson believes will stand the brand in good stead when the cost of living crisis starts to bite. The business is currently working to identify former customers to send them offers to entice them back, as well as promote the web shop and delivery service to those loyal customers who may have moved away from the physical shop.
Hop Burns & Black is also using Mailchimp to send subscription customers details about what’s in their boxes each month, or to offer special rewards to VIP shoppers who spend the most. “We’re devoting a lot of time to customer retention,” Ferguson says. “I think it’s easier to retain as opposed to acquire.”
Above all, her advice to other small businesses would be to focus more on projecting authenticity through a newsletter. “Product news, sales, giveaways, are all well and good. But what makes people really connect with a small business is being able to relate to it on a personal level,” she says. “You don’t have to be an expert storyteller to be able to tell stories – just celebrate your team and your values. If you speak with that authentic voice and give people an insight into how you tick, they’ll be interested.”
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The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the people interviewed and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Intuit, Mailchimp or any of its cornerstone brands or employees. The primary purpose of this article is to educate and inform.