Retailers are going through a turbulent period but having risen to the challenge in the toughest of times historically, Adrienne Rodgers is fully convinced they can do so once more.
The head of enterprise at Cork City’s local enterprise office (LEO) said that since the recession, retail has been hit by a “tsunami of factors”.
Many are in survival mode, she said, with some despairing about how to turn things around for the better.
However, it has been like this before and retailers rose to the challenge.
“I grew up in Cork and I came out of school in the 1980s. People talk about it being tough today but Cork back then was grey, it was dull, our streets were dirty, you couldn’t get a bus at the best of times, there were only a few big shops and everyone else was just about hanging in there.
“When you look around our city today, our retailers have made such a difference to our society.
“They have proved their resilience in the past, and I feel they can do it now once they start to move in the right direction, but they need to have winds to do so.
“Once they get those short-term winds, they will get stronger,” she said.
Traditionally, the LEOs would have supported manufacturing and international trading services.
But they have found ways to support the retail industry and have impressed upon the Government of the need to intervene, she said.
“I can’t emphasise enough that engagement with us in the LEO is key — we are here to help, to listen, to help you plan and make your business stronger.
“You lose absolutely nothing by coming into us and engaging.
“A lot of what we try to do now is work with the individual business because that is the only way to help them.
“The key is getting in with individual business owners and help think about ways to change what they are doing. Because they can’t continue the same way,” she said.
In the last two years, the Cork City LEO held 12 trading online voucher seminars to help support retailers who want to develop their e-commerce platforms and improve digital marketing.
It held seven more events aimed specifically at retail, mostly about engaging customers and identifying changing habits — online being the most glaring change in recent years.
Almost half of the 597 business people who attended the LEO Cork City business support programmes were from the retail industry.
“If your business is in existence for 12 months and you are using your website for digital marketing purposes or free commerce, you can avail of the trading online voucher.
“We are not getting enough of the take-up of it. It’s a maximum of €2,500 or 50% of what you are going to spend on your website, it’s an online application process that is quite straightforward. We do a briefing session with someone who knows how to build them, so you can go to your web designer with a plan in hand.
“Many who open their shops every morning think online is a separate thing — it’s not. It is all in one. You must present yourself online as you do in the shop, and vice versa.
“We’re very much focused on the online piece this year. We need to make sure that retailers can survive what they are going through now so they can morph into something sustainable longterm,” said Ms Rodgers.
While online has become a huge part of retail, Cork City LEO also provides more traditional supports which Ms Rodgers said can be key to long-term success.
“We’ve developed programmes different to 15 years ago. There are workshops and site audits to the shop, one-to-one mentoring, and more. At the end of it, you are hoping the shops have a roadmap for changes to make for the business.
“We look at how to put resources in place for the shop to get there. Mentoring for half days is free. Then for €50, they can get another three. The training programmes we charge about 25% of the cost and the Government subsidises 75%.
“I always hold Cork Flower Studio up as a poster child for what we are trying to do. They went on the first retail programme at the end of Douglas St. They worked with retail expert James Burke and within three months, you can’t help but miss the good stuff out the front.
“Don’t expect people to walk in and feel the experience, but draw them in by feeling it outside. It takes a different way of thinking — it’s not about turning on the lights in the morning, it’s about moving stock to the front, and practical issues retailers have to contend with.
“Maybe what people are concerned about is confidentiality — there is nothing that leaves the four walls. It is totally between us. It’s a safe environment to come and talk about their issues. But engagement is key, people have to come to us,” she said.