Friday 18 October 2019

Alan O'Neill: 'Shops must fight back and join online revolution'

Independent retailers are a huge boon for our towns but to survive they must embrace the new reality

Westport has few big-name retail brands, which is a great opportunity for small family businesses to make their mark
Westport has few big-name retail brands, which is a great opportunity for small family businesses to make their mark

Alan O'Neill

The town of Westport in Co Mayo calls itself 'the Riviera of the Wild Atlantic Way'. It's a clever description that conjures up images of a beautiful location and great personality. It's such an icon of Irish culture, that it's even signposted from Palmerstown in Dublin. The town lives up to its great reputation with a diverse mix of leisure pursuits, hotels, restaurants and pubs. And its shopping.

Bobby Kerr brought his Saturday morning 'Down to Business' show to the town last week. The programme is intended to give towns a boost and to identify opportunities for further improvement, from a business perspective. I was invited to participate and give my assessment of retail in the town. To do that justice, I travelled west a few days beforehand to do a little mystery shopping.

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It's clear that there is a great sense of pride in the town. The residents, business owners, sports clubs, associations and town planners work really well together. The cleanliness, the colour and layout is superb. Westport will have few big-name retail brands as the population density just doesn't justify their presence. This is a great opportunity for small family businesses to make their mark without the pressure of larger competitors with deep pockets.

I was encouraged by a number of strong proactive retailers which are clearly working on their businesses. They had a good mix of product and presentation and were engaging with customers. This was especially true of lady's boutique The Dressing Room on Bridge Street and Townhouse on Shop Street. Townhouse is a new concept store with an eclectic mix of antiques and contemporary homewares, Irish wool and linen, gifts and a coffee bar. However, I did notice a few empty shop units. In my experience, landlords typically just sign up the first tenant with ability to pay the agreed rent. But that's not enough, as far too often in towns across the country, new stores close down after a few years. I'd love to think that the landlords would sit with the letting agent and the town planner to proactively consider what type of retailer would best suit that unit, and then for the letting agent to go and find a match. I believe that with this proactive approach, the mix in a town will improve and the likelihood of long-term success for that new retailer will increase.


There are three roads leading into Westport. One from Castlebar, one from Newport and a third from Delphi. However, let's not forget the fourth and very significant virtual road into the town, through the web. When you Google the word Westport, the two top sites give an overview of all that is good and great about Westport. But shopping was poorly represented on both these sites. And unfortunately those retailer links that were listed were not inspiring.

I'm not saying that every retailer has to have a trading website, but at the very least, they should have a brochure site that gives an overview of their offering. I'm not even convinced that a Facebook page is enough on its own anymore.

Remember too that if you're not trading online, the purpose of an online presence is to create awareness and drive footfall. But that is a complete waste of time and money if the experience that customers get when they come into your bricks and mortar store is poor. Retailers often underestimate their own ability to influence sales. Yes I know that there are some customers that will use you to identify their needs and then go online to buy. But with your skills and personality, there is so much more you can do to inspire, educate, entertain and romance that customer to buy from you. Coupled with that, not enough retailers have mastered how to professionally close the sale. It's not necessarily an art, it's a learned skill. And this is a nationwide challenge.

Every day we hear about bricks-and-mortar retailers closing down. And that is sad for them and for us. We need good independent retailers to create a mix, a buzz and an atmosphere in our towns. It's high time retailers looked at this differently.

Tips for Small Retailers on Fighting Back

1: Get a website. Even if budget is a problem for you at the moment, you can do it for free. Just Google 'free websites'. While that's not at all ideal, it will at least get you playing on the pitch.

2: Remember the purpose of a non-trading website is to build brand awareness and drive footfall. But that is not the be all and end all. When and if customers do come into your store, they have growing expectations of a good experience. What that means will vary from category to category. So before you do build an online presence, get your bricks and mortar house in order first. Remember that includes the 3Ps. That's your 'Product' mix, your 'Place' and your 'People'.

3: Don't underestimate your own ability to sell in-store. If your head is wrecked and you're just not sure how to adapt your in-store experience to a modern customer, seek help. There are associations and professionals that will guide you. While the investment may be a challenge at first, you will reap the rewards sooner than you think.

4: Go and visit stores in other non-competing towns. Retailers are a band of brothers and sisters and if you ask the right questions, they'll help you.

The Last Word

Why do great department stores like Arnotts focus so much on their product mix, their people, standards and consistency across the store? It's because they know it helps the customer journey and that they will spend more.

I'm sure that in every town in Ireland, there is a mix of good retailers and not so good. Lest you might think that that's great for the good ones - I see it differently. By coming together, towns in Ireland might develop 'destination-thinking' and work together like the people in Westport do.

Retailing is suffering from its biggest disruption ever. Many stores are closing down and online usually gets the blame.

For sure, online is a huge threat. But to give up as many have and not embrace the new reality, is such a shame.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go

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