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SMEs must join retail revolution and sell online

Digital innovation might seem far-fetched to some small firms but it is vital to future success, writes David Curtin

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Digital innovation might seem far-fetched to some small firms but it is vital to future success

Digital innovation might seem far-fetched to some small firms but it is vital to future success

Digital innovation might seem far-fetched to some small firms but it is vital to future success

For SMEs, the future of commerce is online and always-on. We live in an age of ecommerce. The internet has opened doors to a vibrant global marketplace that welcomes customers whatever the time of day, whether they're in Dublin, Dallas or Dubai.

This hasn't happened by chance. In Ireland, nearly everyone is connected to the internet. Over 90pc have access to a smartphone, meaning we're online practically everywhere we go. We can use our bank cards, our phones and even our watches to pay for goods and services with a simple tap.

The ubiquity of this highly convenient technology means we expect - even take for granted - goods and services on demand.

But not every business is capitalising on our willingness to spend.

Small businesses make up over 99pc of all Irish enterprises, and micro-businesses with fewer than 10 employees - your local convenience store, hairdresser, or bookshop, for example - make up 92pc.

However, according to the latest IE Domain Registry Digital Health Index (Q4 2017), nearly three-quarters of Irish SMEs don't engage in ecommerce. Even more surprisingly, almost 20pc have no online presence whatsoever.

Simply put, a business without ecommerce or, indeed, a website or social media presence, cannot compete.

In fact, today, nearly 60pc of us would be less likely to do offline or in-store business with an SME that has no online presence.

In 10 years, a business that can't sell or interact with its customers via the internet will be considered a relic from a bygone era.

We want more and we want it now

The ecommerce platforms that we use to buy our books, our laptops, and even our weekly groceries are in a constant state of innovation and improvement. Retailers are using new technologies to drive more positive customer experiences and repeat business.

Rather than relying solely on images, some online clothes retailers are giving customers the chance to 'try on' their new shirts and dresses using special smartphone apps with augmented reality, or AR, technology.

In real time, AR superimposes an item of clothing on the user's body or a close approximation of their body shape.

The customer, having 'tried on' the product, is more likely to make a purchase, and the retailer spends less money refunding and repackaging items that don't fit. It's a win-win.

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Part of delivering a positive customer experience is delivering a personalised one. Customers want to be treated as individuals and have their specific tastes catered to.

'Machine learning' is facilitating that by 'predicting' what you might be interested in buying next.

For example, if you buy, or even view, a fishing rod on Amazon, the site might then suggest other related items, like tackle, warm clothing and camping gear.

Over time, your purchasing habits are collated into personalised product recommendations-if you like fishing, there's a good chance you'll enjoy other outdoor activities and purchase products related to them.

To a small business in Ireland, talk of these innovations might seem farfetched.

While it's true that these technologies won't be applicable to every industry right now, increasingly tech-savvy customers are growing accustomed to more advanced forms of ecommerce.

SMEs need to remain in step with consumer expectations.

It's not rocket science

That's not to say that Ireland's bricks-and-mortar shops will become extinct. No matter how advanced or how small microchips and circuit-boards get, there will always be value in physically examining a product in store, especially if it is large, expensive or complex.

At the very least, consumers are still likely to favour viewing a new sofa or fridge in person, then buying it online.

To use marketing jargon, this is the 'omnichannel' approach - essentially, a shopping experience that allows a customer to seamlessly transition between shopping in store and on their phone or computer.

A basic click-and-collect service is a good example of an omnichannel solution that can be implemented relatively easily, even by Ireland's smallest micro-businesses.

Take a hardware store in a small town in Cork. Rather than relying solely on local footfall, this business lets customers purchase or reserve tools and supplies online via their website. Customers are then emailed or texted an order number.

When they drop into the store, they show the clerk this information, receive their pre-prepared order immediately, and then pay at the checkout. The result? Busy customers avoid the hassle of queueing and scouring shelves, and the store provides a positive, seamless customer experience.

For an SME used to the old ways of doing business, this might all sound like rocket science - but it isn't. It's cheaper, easier and faster than it's ever been to build a website and sell online. Fully functional, ecommerce-enabled websites can be built in a couple of hours using the simple drag-and-drop interfaces of 'DIFM' ('do it for me') websites like Wix and Weebly. Many .ie domain accredited registrars also offer similar website-building packages.

Alternatively, SMEs can sell their products on online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or any one of the other myriad platforms for niche markets around the world.

Ecommerce spending is rising at 10 times the rate of traditional, face-to-face spending. For Ireland's SMEs, the most lucrative opportunities are online.

Websites today are inexpensive and easy to build and maintain. Small businesses willing to experiment and invest time in developing an online presence will not only provide enhanced service to new and existing customers, but will be well-positioned to outmanoeuvre larger players and dominate market niches.

David Curtin is the chief executive of IE Domain Registry


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