Moving online: tips from Bradfords Bakers

The pandemic has forced many businesses to change what they offer, but family business Bradfords Bakers started the transition back in 2006 to an online model, operating fully online by 2013. If you’re thinking about changing the way your business trades, and want to move from bricks and mortar to more online offerings, read on to hear from MD James McGoldrick about how he took the business from struggling to successful.

Bradfords Bakers was founded by Hugh Bradford in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1924. The bakery occupied only one property at a time, operating with small staff teams, until the late sixties and early seventies, when the demand for Bradfords Bakers goods outgrew their shops and the company expanded to operate out of nine bakeries in and around Glasgow. The company opened its first Glasgow City Centre shop in 1984 in Cambridge Street, and by 1989 the Bradfords Bakers Sauchiehall Street location became its flagship store, which, for a time, was the largest retail bakery in the UK.

In 2006, in addition to bricks and mortar bakeries, Bradfords moved online, allowing the company to supply gifts UK wide for the first time. James McGoldrick says, “Previously, only those in and around Glasgow could taste our treats so the Bradford family was thrilled to expand and find new customers.” Howeber the 2008 banking crisis then hit the family bakery hard, and they went through the difficult process of closing all of their bakeries and moving completely online. Adapting quickly their last store closed on one Friday in 2013, and the new website that is now the main customer interface went live the following Tuesday.

James says, “Pre-pandemic, our most popular offering by far was cupcakes. We offer a very wide variety of flavours of cupcakes, all of which are hand-decorated. A lot of our options are also customisable, so customers can add a pictures printed in icing to the cakes, or messages, or logos, which were popular for corporate events.” The pandemic saw an upsurge in demand: James says, “During lockdown, there has been a considerable surge in demand for afternoon teas and birthday surprise boxes. With an afternoon tea set and some imagination, someone can turn their home into their own little private tearoom. Our birthday surprise boxes are popular too because people are unfortunately not able to go shopping for birthday presents like they’re used to. Our box comes with treats, including helium balloons, and can go directly to the recipients house, making it a COVID-19 friendly option for a gift.”

At the start of 2020, Bradfords had five members of staff, but the demand for gifts allowed the company to employ five more fulltime members of staff. James says, “We needed more manpower to tackle the amount of orders we were receiving. In the run up to Christmas, we had to turn off new orders because, even with our doubled staff amount, we didn’t have the manpower to complete the orders requested. Additionally, we couldn’t get our hands on the stock we needed, either; we make all of our cupcakes, doughnuts, brownies, and other baked goods in house, but we use third parties to supply baskets for hampers, cheeses, crackers, wines and other items. We actually didn’t have the storage space to hold all of the items we needed, even if we did have the access we needed to them.”

Bradfords offers flexible working when needed with benefits for the staff and the business. James says, “Two of our staff members, Caitlin and Saffron, effectively share one job. Before working with Bradfords Bakers Caitlin was a nanny but as COVID restrictions and lockdowns limited the need for nannying as parents could work from home, the amount of hours she was putting towards nannying dropped. Saffron is working towards her Master’s degree, but also had a part time job at a restaurant which has been suspended due to COVID restrictions. The two work around each other; Caitlin has been able to pick up some hours nannying a few days a week, so Saffron covers those hours, and otherwise can devote her time to her studies. One of our long-term staff members, Helen, also works flexibly and chooses her own hours. As someone who has worked here a long time, she has a good understanding of what needs done on a day-to-day basis, and how long that takes, and when she can do what she needs to do. She knows there’s no point in coming to work early in the morning as there are no cakes ready yet for her to prepare for delivery, so instead comes in a bit later and then stays later. She also works her hours around being able to see family members during the week – she is dependable and hardworking, and is trusted to do everything that needs done within her own time frame.”

If you’re thinking of transitioning to online, James McGoldrick advises, “Any bricks and mortar shop owners who want to transition successfully to online trading should have a very serious project plan – it’s not a simple thing.

“If, for example, you want to put balloons online like we have, you’d need to think of a million things: from getting and resizing images of the product, to getting the e-commerce aspect working. There are third party systems that can host your e-commerce business, but they have a lot of caveats, like limiting how many people can visit your website at once and transaction fees that could end up taking a significant percentage of your profit.

“There’s so much to consider when moving online, and it can be very expensive. Do you have the necessary IT skills? Because if not, you’ll have to pay someone who does to tackle the IT side of the business. Are you going to advertise? Or rely on SEO to promote your business?

“Also, how suitable is your product range for the internet? In bricks and mortar shops, local customers may have drastically different needs from online shoppers. On the other hand, online shoppers may be willing to spend more as they’re specifically hunting for something on the internet.

“On that note, local stores do have some advantages over bigger, national stores; when someone searches for a product or service, Google will likely recommend a local dealer or service provider first. If your store is niche and the only one that services a certain market, you may not feel the need to advertise as there is little in ways of competition.

“Transitioning from bricks and mortar to online trading is time consuming, costly, and the items or services you provide may not always translate well for online selling – but as a small e-commerce company, you can be a lot more nimble than business giants, which can end up being extremely advantageous.”

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