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How retail can survive and thrive in the drive online amid Covid fallout

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'Over the past decade, e-commerce sales here have doubled from €1.05bn to hit €2.2bn last year, according to analysts IBISWorld.' Stock photo

'Over the past decade, e-commerce sales here have doubled from €1.05bn to hit €2.2bn last year, according to analysts IBISWorld.' Stock photo

'Over the past decade, e-commerce sales here have doubled from €1.05bn to hit €2.2bn last year, according to analysts IBISWorld.' Stock photo

Even if the pandemic had not utterly changed the face of Main Street, retail was already fending off relentless assaults from online competitors.

Over the past decade, e-commerce sales here have doubled from €1.05bn to hit €2.2bn last year, according to analysts IBISWorld.

Double-digit growth is now forecast annually, which will boost that number to €3.8bn by 2024 according to the firm, which provides industry research.

Clearly, even without a pandemic that has hammered footfall, Irish retailers which had not entertained online sales were going to miss out on where customers are now placing their spend, which is migrating, and quickly, online.

With the likes of Amazon wanting a share of pretty much every retail sector, the signs are ominous for businesses that do not embrace an online retail culture.

This is why Enterprise Ireland has been a strong advocate for Irish retail to help it level up so as to meet the market changes.

Covid-19 would have not figured in any strategic business plan of even the most far-sighted enterprise-level retailer, much less the average SME on Main Street. At the same time as many shops are dealing with day-to-day survival during the pandemic, astute businesses are using the changes in consumer shopping habits to rethink, rebrand and boost their online offering.

We know this because of the massive response to our Online Retail Scheme which provides grant aid worth up to €40,000 for firms so as to help them develop integrated online retailing as part of the Government's July Jobs Stimulus package.

The scheme ran its first call earlier this year, which led to overwhelming interest. Some 185 retailers have qualified for levelling up their online business and two-thirds of those came from outside the Dublin area. It was clear that many firms had taken Covid's warning signs as the wake-up call they needed.

Last month, a new call under the scheme was launched by Minister of State for Employment Affairs and Retail Businesses, Damien English. This call has a fund of €5.5m and is open for applications until September 28.

The Covid-19 Online Retail Scheme is open to eligible Irish-owned retail enterprises that had 10 or more employees on, or before, February 29, 2020 and who have the potential to sustain or create jobs, generate growth in online transactions and also have an ambition to internationalise their businesses in the future.

The scheme is 80pc matched funding with the average grant-aid coming in at around €35,500 per project. It has approvals across a broad spectrum of sectors including healthcare, jewellery, fashion, sports, homeware and furniture, and electrical goods and equipment.

It would be unfair to say that Irish retailers were not aware of the online potential for their businesses, but absorbing the costs to upgrade may not have been an option for them.

With the arrival of the pandemic online has been the only option for some.

Derek Moody, co-founder of the outdoor leisure retailer, Great Outdoors, said: 'Similar to many other businesses during the past six months, when our retail store was forced to close, our online business was the only source of income and this is where the investment really paid off. We would have found it very difficult to achieve the level of business we did during this period with our old website and setup.

"As a result of this scheme we have grown our online sales significantly and we have employed two new full-time staff members to work in our online sales department."

Greatoutdoors.ie had a limited online sales portal already and being able to fully upgrade it means the firm is well-positioned post-Covid.

It was a different story for family-run fashion retailer Jenny's Boutique, which had only social media to supplement its Co Meath stores and Co Dublin franchisee.

Three generations of retail had looked set to go to the wall, according to owner Jenny Conway.

"We went with a fully-integrated retail solution to build a terrific website and it's saved us," said Conway. "In fact, jennys.ie actually opened up new markets to us. We're getting custom from not only all over Ireland but Scotland, Wales and England as well.

"It has absolutely transformed our business, without a doubt," she added.

It is clear that going online can be about more than just survival. It is the key to securing the future.

Ross O'Colmain is department manager, Construction, Cleantech, Timber and Consumer, at Enterprise Ireland

Sunday Indo Business