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World Stores - searching for retail success

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:10 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

Sometimes this blog is accused of an obsession with Silicon Valley, at the expense of home grown technology businesses. It's true that the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter make plenty of news - but when I come across an interesting British start-up I'm keen to let you know about it.

Screengrab from World Stores website

And WorldStores, a business based in Twickenham, has a fascinating tale to tell - it appears to have found the secret to successful online retailing. In just a couple of years the firm has launched 76 niche retail sites, mainly selling large items for the home and garden. And that at a time when selling those kind of products on the high street has been the way to lose money in a hurry.

So why is this business on track to boost revenues by 70% this year? According to the two founders, the secret lies not in the products but in mining web search data. "All the answers to online retailing are in the data," says co-founder Joe Murray. "We've managed to build an entire business around reverse-engineering the retail process," explains his partner Richard Tucker.

So instead of taking a bedroom furniture business and working out how to put it online, their starting point is Google. "We looked though thousands of different keyword searches," says Joe, "and spent two years analysing the data to find categories that have a large volume of searches that don't really deliver a satisfactory result."

The founders, who previously ran a search engine optimisation business, turned up a lot of product categories they felt looked promising and started building websites and contacting suppliers. So there's a cagesworld, a mattressesworld, a barstoolworld, and many more.

Google, as well as being used to to identify new retail opportunities, plays another vital role. WorldStores uses paid search to market its sites. So, for instance, if you search for pet cages, you are likely to see an advert for

But the founders say the whole operation would not work without a close relationship with their suppliers. They pride themselves on getting 70% of the 170,000 products they sell delivered to the buyer the next day. That means a complex logistical operation, with their own technology installed in the supplier's warehouse.

Here's one example. The mattresses site is largely supplied by a clutch of tiny firms based in Batley and Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. They have been in a precarious position: too small to supply the big chains and with their traditional customers, the local high street furniture store, dying out.

Now, says Joe Murray, they've been transformed into just-in-time operations. "They get an order from us, they make a mattress in twenty minutes and the van picks it up for delivery the next day."

So World Stores is an interesting mixture: a marriage of search technology and quick-footed niche retailing nous. Backing from the venture capital firm Balderton has helped it to grow rapidly, and its founders are now casting a glance at the German market, which they reckon  is a couple of years behind the UK in exploiting search.

There's no guarantee that this plucky little British business will make it big - after all, it's competing with the mighty Amazon, which now stocks plenty of home and garden furniture.
But wouldn't it be nice if a company from Surrey showed that you don't have to be in Seattle or Silicon Valley to master the art of selling online.


  • Comment number 1.

    All you need is a decent internet connection and the world is your oyster. Good luck to them, I hope they go from strength to strength, and I hope more people in the UK get a good enough connection in the future to help them start innovative new businesses online like this. Currently a third of the country doesn't. Get a good connection that is.
    For digital britain to rock we need fibre. Not broadband through old phone lines. Bring on the fibre. ;)

  • Comment number 2.

    Cyberdoyle, sorry to disappoint you but the Fibre is not coming. In my area there was a date for when FTTC was going to be installed, that date has now been removed and plans by BT shelved.

  • Comment number 3.

    The reason that 'the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter make plenty of news', is because they are constantly hyped by people like you Rory! You then patronise WorldStores as a 'plucky little British business'. If you need a good example of a successful British technology you only need to look at ARM processors.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great story - best of luck, guys

  • Comment number 5.

    Neat. Someone who's cracked the black art of SEO...

    ... something I've not managed, my sites just bob to the top but I do not understand how it happens. Combination of a site name that reflects content, content that's all about that topic and good links with other relevant sites... I THINK! But I don't know...

  • Comment number 6.

    Rory, try searching for WorldStores on any customer review site and see if that gives a slightly different perspective?

  • Comment number 7.

    Great idea, but surely there must be more some more original stories out there in 'digital britain'?

    After all, this is just another version of the 'Parrot Cages' business model ran as a story in October [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 8.

    ...and then Google changes their search algorithms and the business falls to pieces. Great idea, but requires a lot of SEO maintenance.

  • Comment number 9.

    Last time I checked, Twickenham wasn't in Surrey.

  • Comment number 10.

    "At 11:00am on 31st Mar 2011, Matt wrote:
    Rory, try searching for WorldStores on any customer review site and see if that gives a slightly different perspective?"

    Matt, I think you need to remember that, generally, the only people to use these online review sites are those that have had a poor experience. As a nation, we are quick to complain and moan about a poor service, but far less likely to use such a site to praise great service. I'm sure there are plenty of happy customers of WorldStores........

  • Comment number 11.

    I really hope a business like this can succeed as it is a breathe of fresh air in an increasingly corporate world, but it also must remember its route to success.

    All too often start ups build good supplier relations then as they grow they wield power to maximise their own profits, to the detriment of the little guys who got them there in the first place.

  • Comment number 12.

    One day, we will all want to visit a shop again and speak to a human..

  • Comment number 13.

    What is it about the BBC and parrot cages? Link to a very similar company with a very similar story only 6 months earlier>

  • Comment number 14.

    Back to the article: An elegant solution in the "small is beautiful" mould. "and quicker to respond", I would add.

    As to the reason why Google, etc... are always in the news, it's because they make sure they are always in the news. It's good for the profile. And there are a more than willing set of journalists, and general media personnel, around to feed that profile. The worst thing you could all do, from their perspective, is to ignore them. Put simply. Much of the news that comes out of Google, etc.. isn't news at all. It's just image enhancement and reminders to everyone that they are still here.

  • Comment number 15.

    As a frequent user of Amazon, in my experence, delivery is flaky when it comes to large items that need a courier delivery. Post is fine, but mattresses don't usually fit in a letterbox.
    Even a Kindle I ordered for my wife's Christmas present ended up with me camping at the courier delivery warehouse and refusing to leave until they searched the 'fail' cages - which is where items go if they call when you are not in, and get returned to sender after four days!
    Customer satisfaction is where most on-line retailers fall down. If these guys can continue to have happy customers, word of mouth will do the rest.

  • Comment number 16.

    I wish them all the best too, although am slightly bemused by the contention on the link from the BBC homepage that they are "The British company that is looking at retail backwards."

    Perhaps I am missing something but they seem to be carrying out market research to identify a demand, then retailing products to meet the demand. That isn't backwards retailing, it's, er, retailing.

    Does Rory think retailers of the past have just gathered together a random collection of knick knacks and hoped someone might want them? The technology they are using to identify demand might be more innovative, but I don't see what all the "backwards" and "reverse engineering" claims are about.

    Still, as I said, I wish them well and it's good to see innovative businesses growing in the current climate.

  • Comment number 17.

    Did someone paid you to market an ordinary retailer portal, Rory?

  • Comment number 18.

    Great story, but why does their Portal url and the link posted here go to a dead site?

  • Comment number 19.

    It's always good to hear about a success story, however this is simply efficient search engine optimisation combined with drop shipping. A google search will show thousands of opportunites for drop shipping.

    Hat's off to them for cracking the right combination of marketing and sales but this is nothing new.

  • Comment number 20.

    The business model a great idea and you are right to sing its praises. But search optimisation and PPC is nothing new - We ( and thousands of others have been doing this for ten years. (I'm keen to point out that we are NOT a sub-sidiary of Worldstores!) The only issue Worldstores seemingly has is their online reputation management - check for their reviews and you'll probably be put off ordering. Rightly or wrongly.

  • Comment number 21.

    @cyberdoyle, "All you need is a decent internet connection and the world is your oyster": Actually, the point is that you need a smart business idea. All the bandwidth in the world won't help you if nobody wants to use your service. Once you start to grow a customer base, then you need bandwidth so they can all talk to you.

  • Comment number 22.

    Not to split hairs Rory, but your alliteration at the end is incorrect - Twickenham is in Middlesex, not Surrey. Looked good though!

  • Comment number 23.

    > Matt, I think you need to remember that, generally, the only people to use these
    > online review sites are those that have had a poor experience. As a nation, we are
    > quick to complain and moan about a poor service, but far less likely to use such a
    > site to praise great service. I'm sure there are plenty of happy customers of
    > WorldStores........
    It's a good point! Personally, I have a rule that when I complain about service (to the company directly, or ranting online or offline), I'll then compliment someone who's recently given me good service. Otherwise I'd never get around to the praise.

    There's a real problem with most reviews not being an accurate representation of the product or service, because the only people reviewing are fanboys/girls or people who've had a terrible experience.
    The company I work for (Reevoo) works with online retailers to get product and service reviews by emailing all their customers to ask if they'd like to review. We get just under 20% of people deciding to write a review - and not just the people who are unhappy with their product or service. We still get those people too, but they're properly diluted by the majority of people who had a good experience, but couldn't be bothered to go out of their way to write a review.

  • Comment number 24.

    Rory- You say "Amazon got in there first" - But I've been streaming music I own from Dropbox for months now. It's no different to what Amazon is offering. Free cloud storage with music streaming.

  • Comment number 25.

    Onlywingman at comment 10., you may be right that more people write reviews when they have bad experiences, but the reviews I found for Worldstores were pretty special. Actually, on three websites I couldn't find one reviewer that gave them more than one star. Are you telling me that that's normal?

    What's telling is that they all complain about the same thing, bad (or rather nonexistent) customer service.

    I'm glad I checked the reviews after reading this blog before actually buying something from Worldstores.

  • Comment number 26.

    @cyberdoyle Don't despair, fibre will never be available for everyone, but 4G will come to the rescue. I'm already using a 3G MiFi device in preference to landline broadband, as it's faster where we are and cheaper, gives me 15Gb a month. Five years forward, 4G will give 100Gb a month at anything up to 100Mps. Landlines (and telephone lines) will be dead :-)

  • Comment number 27.

    How much did they pay you for the free links Rory =p

  • Comment number 28.

    Great to see you cover a UK internet business however there are allot more out there that never get a mention and a little more support could easily generate a new UK eBay. Being a new internet business ourselves with a great business and story to tell, it seems near on impossible to get through to the right contacts at the BBC or even get a reply back to press releases.

    It would be great if the BBC could dedicate a new ventures section where entrepreneurs and people with ideas could post ideas, get feedback and look for business partners. All of this would make it greatly easier for more businesses to succeed instead of David Cameron's poor ideas on kick starting the economy.

  • Comment number 29.

    SEO is not a 'dark art' as some posts have suggested. If you have been stung in the past you most probably have used the wrong media agency. SEO should be just as transparent and open as PPC or any other media.

  • Comment number 30.

    This is purely an enterprise consisting of a couple of individuals who have learnt the very basics of SEO - keyword research. They've then had the sense (and investment) to spend a load on Google PayPerClick. SEOs/SEMs have been doing this for years. Download tools like Market Samurai and it will do most of it for you!

    Do you have any affiliation with these people (previously commented on)? It would seem like you do for several reasons; there are many companies and individuals like this (they are not trail blazer by any means) and you've given them a nice juicy text link "mattresses site" instead of what I'd expect to see in natural editorial copy - "" and you've also

    I agree with onlywingman with regards to the review sites but I think the biggest threat to these sort of companies is that their natural search rankings are relying heavily on keyword rich domains, still a big ranking factor but spammy, and Google are all about spam combating this year!

  • Comment number 31.

    @wubblepig: actually, you're completely wrong. There is no such place as Middlesex and there hasn't been since the 60s. Middlesex ceased to be a county then and the majority of its area was subsumed into Greater London, with the rest subsumed into Hertfordshire and Surrey.

    Rory is still wrong though, Twickenham is in London.

  • Comment number 32.

    Their SEO can't be that good as I spent quite a lot of time researching wood burning stoves on the internet a few months ago and did not find

  • Comment number 33.

    Rory this is not an interesting start up. If its the best you can find then look harder!

    You also have to stick up for talking about fb and google, these are world changing innovative companies, why not find the next generation instead of publicising retail companies with good marketing.

  • Comment number 34.

    I think I missed something here? SEO isn’t a dark art I’ve been doing it since the birth of Search engines it’s all common sense.

    Meta Title, Meta Keywords, Meta description, A href titles, Image naming, Alt text, CSS layout, Tableless designs, Clean logical coding just to name a few…
    All I can say is see where this company is in 12 months’ time, as chances are after Rory’s BIG plug no doubt money changed hands somewhere along the line, as most of the people reading this will have searched for these terms clicked the PPC link for the site, cost them in the process and more than likely used the sites daily allowance or even sand boxed them until they can proof they aren’t spamming Google and no one has bought anything Nice one Good business sense:-).
    “The founders, who previously ran a search engine optimisation business” love to know why they don’t run this anymore??? As looking at some of the sites they are the worst SEO friendly web sites I’ve come across the only backward or reverse engineering these have done is set the web standards back 10 years!

    Stupidest ever online retail business model:
    76 sites all looking the same but slightly different (GOOGLE will punish Spammers!) and more coming by the sounds of it managing these site, running cost, administration etc..
    All PPC no real natural searches the costs will mount with very little return, or what return they will try to squeeze the supplier to cut their costs to make it work….
    I could do what they are doing on 1 site and be in the top 10 of Google natural searches for quite a few of these search terms, If these two guys where real SEO experts they could do the same!

    Oh and one more thing BBC, didn’t you run an article across this site, BBC news, The One Show and so on last Christmas telling us all not to use a ecommerce web site without HTTPS or SSL installed as they are ALL fake, putting lots of small businesses in jeopardy in the process!

  • Comment number 35.

    Still, makes a change from the Lane Fox blitz from 10 years ago.

  • Comment number 36.

    Am I the only person who thinks that manipulative SEO is not so much a "black art" as a form of deception, with its proponents only marginally above spammers? When I do a search term for something to buy, I want to find a REAL business which sells it itself, not 20 different "pointer" sites whose sole purpose is either to bombard you with adverts (with or without malware) on the way to a proper site, or to redirect you to somewhere even worse! Mal Blackshaw (#34) gets it right about what SEO SHOULD be, but unfortunately, that's not what most con-men calling themselves SEO optimisers actually do!

  • Comment number 37.

    #36 This is what Google and other search engines have been trying to do for years cut Spammer Sites that are redirecting you to malicious web sites and in turn getting real sites with relevant content to the top, not everyone in SEO are con-men as you put it, but SEO is to get your site to the top of search engines by making the site / pages relevant to the search terms this is the majority of the honest SEO experts, if they promise you to get number one in Google, then stay clear as nobody can give that guarantee.

    From my rambling you might think I don’t really know what I’m taking about but I do and work in Web development / SEO and spend time working with clients after they’ve been promised so much from con-men not really understanding how to do things correctly with very little in return, by recoding sites, correctly doing title, description, keywords, growing receptacle links etc all without the use of Link Farms, on the odd occasion using PPC sensibly for greater success rate. but it frustrates when someone like Rory starts making out these 2 guy’s have done something great and blatantly given them an advantage over there competitors with some nice links within the article to there site to aid them, there sites are poorly optimised, coded to standards from 10+ years ago, total disregard to accessibility issues to name a few problems.

    If they ran a successful SEO company then they should know how to optimise a site correctly also IMO I think they have gone about it all wrong, as they could have done a simple site of and put all the related content on there, beds, bed furniture, wooden beds, metal beds and so on and spent time optimising the one site to keyword specific search terms per site page, this way when Googlebot goes in to these sites it will not see each site as a replication site to the other and knocking it down which will have detrimental effects with Natural Searches in the future

    But what do I know I’m a con-man ;-)

  • Comment number 38.

    Nice way to promote a website on BBC by paying someone to write about a new startup ;)

    2 dofollow links from a page on one of the most reputable website will certainly help *world.* businesses to get higher ranking on search results.

    This is also known as paid link building in SEO world which goes against Google's guidelines and attracts penalty.

    Rory Cellan-Jones, how much do you charge to write such paid articles with dofollow links inside it? I've a lot of clients who would be interested in available your services :)

  • Comment number 39.

    Brilliant concept idea by the company!! However I think in general before most people purchase from an online company they read a few reviews on their service....

  • Comment number 40.

    Well, I read this article and thought, good for them. So I followed the link to the main page and then dived right in to the log cabin world site - I'm about to buy one, and I hadn't come across their website before, despite doing a lot of searching. So, how did that work, Rory says they are SEO experts, but they use PPC to get their traffic. If they were that expert they would use their own skills to save on the advertising costs.

    Sorry, i digress.

    So, I typed in 'log cabins' into Google, and their advert is on the right, stating "70% of RRP" which I thought sounded to good to be true. Next I looked at their log cabin site, and it seems to be full of generic images from a multitude of different suppliers. No problem with that, but the prices - OMG!!! They must be 30% or more expensive than many other sites. So, that is a case of misleading advertising.

    Problem number 2, and this one is serious. Their logo says 'The UK's favourite log cabin store' - in fact all their sites carry the same message (just replace log cabin with the relevant details per site.

    Frankly, I doubt their are the nations favourite at everything they do. So, problem number 2 is that they are probably breaching the new rules brought in by the Advertising Standards Authority relating to marketing statements made on the web. These were brought in on the 1st of March. It doesn't take 4 weeks to change a logo - does it?

    Maybe Rory should do more research for an article before proudly proclaiming that for once he isn't sucking up to Twitter et al.

    And maybe, just maybe, he should write about British businesses that actually offer something unique and of value.

  • Comment number 41.

    This is very bad online buissness model. As shown by the reviews this company clearly cant respond to customer needs. Anyone with basic I.T knowledge can create a site that looks genuine and use Google (freeley available tools) to get high listings and produce what could be a malicous site. Rory should have really investigated this further.

  • Comment number 42.

    Couldn't agree more with @Autoebid - the BBC is absolutely great, but it seems determined to boil down its requirements for objectivity and non-commerciality as "US good, UK bad". They seem willing to publish any press release coming out of MIT, Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter.

    I've tried repeatedly to get innovative creations of my own mentioned by the BBC, both locally and nationally. It's been impossible, short of going on Dragons Den. That's despite the fact that all 3 of my creations, I believe, have clear news and social value - they are all related to some aspect of health and well-being, addressing existing or emerging social problems in completely new ways. I have absolutely no doubt that they would get great coverage if they were based in Silicon Valley.

    There must be some scope for showcasing British start-ups - even if it's an irreverent, jokey look at them. Anything's better than continuing to ignore UK start-ups.

    And in case anyone's interested, Konkura is my latest start-up - it's a free sport and fitness website where people can find or create challenges to motivate themselves and friends. Newsworthy? I'd hope so, given it's aimed at increasing grass roots sports participation and encouraging friendly competition, so it taps into current concerns about obesity, and the lack of competitive sport in schools, and even the run up to London 2012. So, no chance of coverage then.

    Whinge over!

  • Comment number 43.

    To those asking why the BBC doesn't have any way of promoting new British businesses or ideas, I do believe you may have heard of a show called Dragons Den?

  • Comment number 44.

    @Test Man, Comment 61

    Completely wrong, I'm afraid, the British Counties all still exist in their historical context, the legislation in the 60's and 70's only abolished/re-organised "administrative" counties and boroughs, they specifically detailed that they no way interfered with the existence of Counties. So, yes, Rutland and Middlesex still exist, in fact the Royal Mail use them in postal addresses.

    You can read more about it here:

  • Comment number 45.

    its good that they have managed to create a viable business on-line like so many others.
    but my fear is that the art of actually "talking" to people in shops or the street is dying, the help from the store staff is dying, the high street is dying.
    people want things now, quick, fast and then sit around waiting for the stuff to arrive.
    they read the drivvle put down by the company/online shop about the product, who big it up as much as possible, and then when the good is received its not what they thought it would be
    at least after buying their new mattress (and when it gets delivered, or not as they are out at work, then have to drive to collect from depo) the customers can take a long sleep, tired and bored from all the net surfing and with nothing else to do as everything has closed down, as no-one leaves their house anymore............

  • Comment number 46.

    How can Rory glowingly endorse this 'company' without researching properly the legitatimacy of their operation. There are a growing number of forums out there where people are more than unhappy - find out what are they unhappy about - quality, non-delivery, customer service??? Watchdog check it out!

  • Comment number 47.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 48.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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