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Retailers preparing for return - but online a bigger challenge than ever

Alan O'Neill


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'Circumstances have forced more consumers to give online a test-run' (Stock photo: Tim Goode/PA)

'Circumstances have forced more consumers to give online a test-run' (Stock photo: Tim Goode/PA)

PA

'Circumstances have forced more consumers to give online a test-run' (Stock photo: Tim Goode/PA)

While every sector is significantly challenged right now, I want to focus today on the retail sector in particular. Along with hospitality and airlines, life for retailers has been really tough over recent weeks. The mandatory closure has put enormous strain on independent retailers, emotionally and economically.

I rang several retail friends to gauge their mood and to hear how they are coping. As you can imagine, I got a mixed response. But I was encouraged to hear that those who have now moved from reactive to proactive mode are now in a better place mentally. Of course they are concerned about their own people, stock levels, rent, rates and other cash-flow challenges, but they are also complimentary about the support mechanisms that have been and continue to be developed by government, Enterprise Ireland and Retail Excellence Ireland.

One of the major concerns, though, is the accelerating migration to online retail.

Jean McCabe of Willow in Ennis and Galway, also has an online presence and that channel is in growth right now. Some Irish department stores and technology retailers have told me they are also experiencing growth in their online channels.

Before this crisis, I was of the strong view that online had its place in the mix but that it would never dislodge traditional retailers. Nor do I believe it is the exclusive cause of some Irish retailers closing down in recent years. I haven't changed my view, but I'm more concerned about the split now circumstances have forced more consumers to give online a test-run.

That said, let's not forget online is usually a cold and transactional experience, whereas good traditional retailers are usually full of uniqueness, personality, empathy and advice. All of this for a consumer who, by nature, is tactile and influenced to shop by all five senses.

Mature retailers know only too well the buck stops with them as individual traders. But to offer positivity and hope, I believe there are things that can be done to navigate the future and make the best of a challenging situation.

Your destiny is in your own hands, and there is much you can influence and control.

My tips for traditional retailers, post Covid-19

If you have an e-commerce channel in your business, make the online shopping experience as effortless as possible.

If you don't have a webchat facility, provide an easy-to-find telephone number to support the confused shopper - and make sure the telephone is manned at all times. Be more flexible with your delivery and returns policies. Don't give the Irish shopper - who wants to support local - any reason to go to the international sites.

Many Irish retailers know their customers by name and buying preferences. Therefore, offer personalised services to them. This might be by showing that you know their size, colour and taste preferences, and reacting accordingly.

Be clever with your social media posts. Don't be pushy with product and discounting. Steve Graham from Grahams Shoes in Dublin told me he has been posting quotes of the day to customers and advice on care for kids' feet and shoes. "It's not all about selling right now," he said.

Get ready for reopening when the lockdown rules ease. Health will be your customers' and your teams' priority, so be seen to prioritise it. I haven't yet heard of new regulations, but you can work them out for yourself. Your linear feet of retail floor space will need to be divided by 6ft chunks.

What can you do to make the physical shopping experience in your store safe, accessible, efficient and even fun? The silly memes that we have all giggled at online over the last few weeks don't have to stop in the real world.

Remember, too, that parents of young kids are probably strung out balancing working from home with home-schooling. How can you relieve that stress for them?

There is no precedent to learn from with all of this. Even tips like these are more based on my concept of the future than past templates. For that reason, be sure to consult with your own teams regularly. Daily team meetings for 15 minutes before store opening will be an essential opportunity for you all to learn and train.

The last word

Many experts are predicting a drop in retail sales this year of between 25pc and50pc. That's a tough projection and, therefore, survival will be more important than profit this year.

A prolonged lockdown enables further evolution of consumer behaviour. So if you haven't yet embraced e-commerce, get on to it now.

Enterprise Ireland has just announced an amazing support package to help retailers with 10 or more employees to enhance their e-commerce channel. They are offering grants of up to 80pc of the cost.

Jeff Sheridan from Matrix Internet informed me it is a competitive process, however, and the €2m overall fund will probably help about 60-80 Irish retailers. He is already helping some retailers to craft their proposal.

If you have fewer than 10 employees, you can also get a grant from your Local Enterprise Office. Putting it off any longer is not an option.

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