Enterprise Ireland has re-opened a grant scheme that pays up to €40,000 to Irish-owned retail businesses to develop their online sales channels, especially for export markets.
Yesterday the agency launched a €5.5m programme that is expected to attract bids from hundreds of firms. Grants can cover 80pc of an investment in improved online sales channels.
An earlier version of the same programme in May paid out €6.5m, or €35,500 on average, to 183 retailers selected from 373 applicants. The selection process is competitive even for firms that meet the criteria but, unlike much of the State's Covid-19 business supports, the grant doesn't have to be paid back.
"The Covid-19 pandemic continues to make it an urgent priority for businesses to accelerate the growth of their online offering," said Minister of State for Employment Affairs and Retail Businesses Damien English.
Firms to benefit from the earlier scheme included Great Outdoors on South Great George's Street in Dublin, Ireland's oldest camping and adventure shop. It was among the first recipients when Enterprise Ireland piloted the programme last year offering smaller grants. Managing director Derek Moody says €20,000 and guidance from the Online Retail Scheme changed the course of his company just in time for the pandemic.
"Enterprise Ireland put us years ahead on our time-line for online development. The grant arrived almost instantly," Mr Moody said.
Before Covid-19, Great Outdoors generated about €5m annually from in-store sales. Since April it has generated a fifth of its sales by value on the web and added two staff to its five-member online team.
"We're busy. Our footfall is down almost 50pc - but our business isn't down," he said.
Great Outdoors ultimately aims to boost online sales to a third of revenue, in part, by launching a pan-European sales platform next month with web domains from Norway to Austria. It's testing the new platform - and has sold goods to customers as far away as the Czech Republic.
"We wouldn't have had the confidence or the finance to do this on our own," he said. "Now we understand that, if we're not seen online, we're never considered."
He said the firm's previous web platform catered to sales only in Ireland and the UK. The new system, designed by Donnybrook-based Marketing Network, allows customers to place orders throughout Europe using his preferred Irish courier firm, DPD.
"Order fulfilment is much quicker and slicker. The integration of carriage charges means it's straightforward for customers outside Ireland to order. From the middle of September we can target and market in specific markets.
"We wouldn't have known how to do this before," he said. "We would have been a bit blinkered and stuck to developing sales in Ireland. It's really eye-opening when you go through the grant process."
The latest iteration of the scheme is administered by Enterprise Ireland. Applicant businesses must be Irish-owned and have employed at least 10 staff full time before the pandemic. They must have some online sales presence and a plan to build "significant functionality", particularly for exports. However, wholesalers, agrifoods and financial firms, car dealers, restaurants and bars, and most franchisees are ineligible.
Firms that received grants in the 2019 pilot included Carrolls Irish Gifts, Golden Discs, Kilkenny Group, Aran Sweater Market in Kerry, Meaghers Pharmacy, Lifestyle Sports, Ted Johnson workwear in Kildare, Greenes Shoes in Donegal, and Yarn Vibes Cork.
May's much larger class of Covid-era recipients included the Equine Warehouse in Tipperary, Ballygarvan Nurseries and Blarney Woollen Mills in Cork, World of Tiles in Westmeath, Fallon & Byrne, Waltons Music and Petmania.