Lifestyle

Monday 22 September 2014

Verify, click, sold!

The streets will be buzzing this Christmas but online shopping has a growing fanbase and Ireland's retailers are among those cashing in.

Cyber fashionista: Ciara O'Doherty with some of her collection of online bargains.
Digital growth: MD of Littlewoods Ireland Geoff Scully with Róisín O'Reilly and Caroline Morahan

With 45 days until those stockings need to be hung and presents wrapped, some people are already planning their annual assault on the shops. For them, nothing will ever replace the sensation of visiting shops, touching and trying on the products, meeting friends for a coffee and generally enjoying the ambience of a trip down main street or a favourite mall.

This year also promises to be different for other reasons; now that the budget has been and gone, people are able to plan ahead and start shopping earlier than even before, says Sean Murphy, deputy chief executive of Chambers Ireland.

"Seven weeks to Christmas, and no budget; it's a new circumstance. This year is going to be a different type of season," he says. "People are a lot more certain about what they have and what they do not have. And this bodes well for retail.

But there is another way to shop, and that is from the comfort of your armchair. Online shopping in Ireland is booming. More than €3.7bn was spent last year and, according to the Digital Hub Development Agency, Ireland's online market is predicted to grow to €21bn by 2017. The average Irish adult spends €116 per month online. An Post has credited "double-digit volume growth in our parcels and packets business" over the past two years to online sales.

Fashion blogger at wildchildstories.com and stylist with iclothing.com Ciara O'Doherty (24) gets goosebumps at the sound of her doorbell. She buys clothes, shoes, art prints, household and beauty items online.

"Growing up in Galway, I didn't have a huge range of shops to choose from, so when I discovered websites like eBay and ASOS, I was blown away by the variety and accessibility of fashion online," she says.

"I was really impressed by how far my money would go, a whole new world of choice was opened up to me."

According to the National Digital Strategy, less than one-quarter of small companies in Ireland are selling online, and 75pc of money spent goes overseas, mostly to the UK.

"The risk is if Irish retailers take too long to go online, customers will already have their loyalties," says Sheila Buckley, head of EEI (eTail Excellence Ireland) at Retail Excellence Ireland.

"People will already be with Amazon, or with ASOS or eBay. However, the general sentiment is if there was an Irish alternative they would have purchased that."

There is a fear out there that having an online presence will take customers away from physical shops, says Joan Mulvihill, chief executive officer of the Irish Internet Association.

"In fact, the opposite is true. Online sales support offline sales; a lot of people are researching online and shopping offline."

Three Irish sisters, Jennie, Sarah and Grace McGinn, have decided they want a chunk of the Irish online market.

In the new year they will launch OPSH.com – an online shopping platform that allows users to create their own virtual high street using one account and one checkout to complete multiple purchases at one time.

"Online shopping's a huge billion-pound industry in the UK," says OPSH community manager Niamh O'Doherty. "It's a huge opportunity. Shopping online is much more difficult than it should be. They've figured it out with music, they've figured it out with movies, why can't they figure it out with fashion? This is where we can swoop in."

For the Web Summit last week, OPSH held an event where the best fashion/tech minds hashed out the future of the high street.

Speaking at the event, Shauna Mei, founder and CEO of AHAlife.com, said bricks-and-mortar shops weren't going away any time soon, but online and offline must work together.

"It's about integrating online and offline. Offline shopping will not disappear, it is more about creating a seamless experience for the end consumer."

Chris Morton, co-founder and CEO of social shopping site Lyst.com, had some advice for Irish businesses slow to get on board. "You've got to do it. The history of the internet is littered with examples of industries that have been irrevocably changed.

"Look at the record labels, the high-street travel agents. These are the early victims of the change the web brought around. We can learn from their example. It's not just about digital and just high street, these worlds have become increasingly blurred and the impact of digital is going to help every aspect of your business."

Managing director of Littlewoods Ireland Geoff Scully says since the company, originally catalogue-based, went digital in 2007, it has seen unprecedented growth.

"Prior to 2007, we would have had about 12pc of sales online. And today it's 85pc. We have doubled the size of our business since 2007, and we would hope to double again in the next three years."

For Ciara, nothing will replace the physical experience of buying something great in the shops, but online shopping has its place in her heart too. "I still love high-street shopping, and no online shop will ever replicate that 'touch and feel' experience.

"Online shopping, however, is much more varied, and can be less expensive. It's nice to be able to relax and sit down and browse without having to trudge around town when the weather is bad. But it's not entirely hassle-free.

"It's important to strike a balance between the two, but ultimately, it's all about shoppers having the choice, and choice is empowerment."

Irish Independent

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