With just eight weeks to go until Christmas Day and at least five of those weeks prohibiting most outlets from opening their brick and mortar stores, many businesses across Munster may be thinking about the value of investing in their online offering, or even setting up a digital presence for the first time.
Indeed, many have already taken the plunge. So far this year, Local Enterprise Offices have paid out in excess of 9,000 vouchers under the ‘Trading Online Voucher Scheme’, with more than 1,000 of these approved by the three LEOs in Cork city and county. This is more than seven times the amount given out last year.
The vouchers, designed to assist small businesses (up to 10 employees with turnover of less than €2m) who have either a limited or no e-commerce presence, offer financial assistance of up to €2,500 with co-funding of 10% from the business. The funds can be used to set up an e-commerce site, develop a digital marketing strategy, add payment facilities to an existing site, develop an app for your customers and more.
“The numbers we've dealt with since March have been off the Richter scale,” said Kevin Curran, Head of Enterprise with LEO Cork North and West.
“In my own office (Cork North and West) we’ve done as much to the end of September within nine months as we would normally expect to do in nine years.”
Speaking after heavy flooding hit many Cork retailers last week, while the imposition of new coronavirus restrictions forced many retailers to shut physical stores ahead of the busiest trading period of the year, Mr Curran couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of having a functional e-commerce site.
“You can have a digital shopfront that stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of what’s happening in public health, or the weather. It protects you,” he said.
The pandemic has been the instigating factor in many businesses taking the time to branch out beyond their traditional bricks and mortar offerings, Mr Curran said, and he believes going forward "the bricks married with the clicks, is going to be what drives business."
“I think people may look back on this year as a kind of clt+alt+delete sort of reboot or reset time for how an awful lot of our businesses actually work.”
Mr Curran was eager to state that “the world of online is not something that our businesses, and particularly our small local businesses, should be afraid of" and he said businesses who have yet to get online, it isn’t too late to get set up before Christmas.
“There’s still time. The biggest thing is just to ask for help,” he said.
For Ray O’Brien of MusicZone record store in Togher, the online trading voucher has been “a lifesaver.”
“We closed our doors like a lot of businesses last week, and if we didn't have the website, we'd be snookered,” he said.
Mr O’Brien first availed of the scheme when it was launched five years ago, and availed of a second voucher this April for upgrades.
Like a shop needing a new lick of paint, Mr O’Brien said the voucher enabled the website to get the work it needed, just at the time when it needed it most.
“Covid has catapulted the online thing five years forward. We would have been doing very modest numbers before, whereas now, we're doing healthy enough kind of numbers on the website.”
“I've said it to anyone that I come across that has a little business, you need to get one if you can," he said. But while the scheme is a great financial aid,“it's a fair few bob to do a decent e-commerce site, you're looking at three or four grand like,” he warned that the “hard graft” comes after.
“It takes ferocious work. We could have 20 new records a week, or 30 or 40 new records some weeks, so it takes a lot [to get these onsite]. There is labour involved on a weekly basis, but if we took our site down now, we'd know very quickly how bad our business would go.”
“If I didn't have this when the shop closed in March, we would have been goosed. You can use your social media, to a degree, but it wouldn't be a patch on the website.”
While Mr O'Brien says he understands getting online can be "daunting," for many, he said it's "so worth it."
“I'd be a traditional retailer, I went kicking and screaming into it, I wasn't in love with the idea and my workload has definitely increased, but if you gave me a choice about still having my shop or working harder.. I'll take the shop," he said.
Wyon Stansfeld, owner of the legendary Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts which has had a home on Paul Street, Cork, for some 37 years, says even if retailers can re-open on December 1st "it won’t be a normal Christmas for anyone."
"There's no way you can have 25 to 30 people inside the shop, no matter what happens," he said.
Therefore, online sales will be crucial this year. But Mr Stansfeld said people often under-estimate the workload involved in "going online."
“Currently, there's about 350 items on our website and about 3,000 items in the shop," he said.
"We will try and update it as quickly as possible, but it's a slow and time-consuming process. It takes about a half an hour, per item, to update it."
Nevertheless, he is determined to keep trading over the coming weeks, with the Christmas trading period usually representing 50% of the years turnover.
Getting online isn't the only challenge for Munster businesses. It’s estimated that as much as 70 per cent of Irish consumers spend online leaves the country. British fashion and cosmetic online retailer ASOS quadrupled its profits this year off the back of Covid-19 demand, while Amazon posted its biggest profit in the site's 26-year history this summer.
Online, retailers have to compete with these big fish. But, the sense of solidarity consumers are feeling with local business people as the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect their businesses may be the Christmas miracle retailers need this Covid Christmastime.
A recent report from .IE and Digital Business Ireland surveyed 1,000 Irish consumers and 500 retail and customer-facing professional service SMEs. They found there has been a significant “swing” in online retail sales away from international competitors towards Irish SME’s.
Irish consumers reported that more than half of their online spending since Covid-19 began has gone to Irish SME’s, with 67% explicitly that they’ve shopped with Irish businesses out of a sense of solidarity.
Mr O’Brien said he has “definitely” seen this shift.
“When someone buys something off us, we thank people and send a personal email. Lately, a lot of people have responded saying that's why we chose ye, that's what we want to do, so there definitely is a movement towards it [supporting local]. People are definitely thinking before they click.”
There is a clear appetite from consumers to shop locally online, so now is the time for Munster businesses to take the time to invest in their online business and capitalise on the solidarity and support consumers want to show them this Christmas.