Less of a difference between bricks and clicks

Bank of Ireland’s head of Retail Sector Owen Clifford says omnichannel is the future of retail and urges firms to stop differentiating between bricks and mortar and online businesses.

Prior to Christmas there was an upsurge in the number of Irish businesses trading online, albeit from a low base. This was accompanied by a strong public sentiment to “buy Irish” online and help preserve businesses and save jobs.

Research published by Visa showed that one in five (21pc) Irish consumers surveyed planned to do most of their shopping online at Christmas due to Covid-19. Yet more than a quarter (28pc) of Irish small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were unprepared to take on the holiday season influx of sales, and only 12pc of small businesses are planning to digitise their business to meet demand.

“Irish consumers want to support Irish retailers to sustain Irish jobs and communities.  It is a great time to deliver a digital offering to the market.”

Similar research from Virgin Media revealed just how digitalised Irish consumers have become since the pandemic began, with more than half confirming they now shop online more than they ever did previously. No doubt the current Level 5 restrictions will accelerate this.

With Christmas 2020 now past, the year ahead 2021 still presents retailers with a challenge to go online to not only deal with closed premises if they are deemed non-essential but to address the expectations of an increasingly digitalised consumer.

To get the message out to SMEs, Bank of Ireland collaborated with online shopping platform Shopify as well as Pointy, the Irish platform recently acquired by Google that helps shoppers find via the internet the products they need in your physical store, and the E-commerce Association of Ireland (eCAI), to highlight the opportunities that exist online.

Following our panel discussion we reached out to Owen Clifford, head of Retail at Bank of Ireland to discuss the importance of firms embracing the omnichannel future.

Between 60pc and 70pc of Irish online shopping spend leaves the country. What do we need to do to reverse this situation?

As a sector, Irish retail needs to work collaboratively to rectify this alarming statistic and “on-shore online”. If people are buying online, they need to be encouraged and given an option to buy from an Irish business.

Dark haired man in suit with blue tie.

Owen Clifford, head of Retail Sector, Bank of Ireland

The days of referring separately to “bricks and mortar sales” and “online sales” are coming to an end – progressive retailers no longer refer to their business in such a binary manner – they know that both channels are fully complementary and integral to the sustainability of their business.

Progressive retailers also recognise that they will need to use their online platform as a catalyst to drive sales and to actively stay engaged with their customers (especially at restriction levels that prevent in-store shopping).  They need to provide a variety of channels/options to their customers – click and collect, delivery, virtual demonstrations/consultations and investigate pop-up store, partnership options etc to meet the accessibility requirements of the 2020/2021 Irish consumer. Retailers now need to be good at not just buying and selling products, but also adept at online fulfillment, data analytics, social media and flexible with their supply-chain/processes.

There are various platforms and supports to test the on-line trading concept and start slowly. Being “searchable” and being accessible is key – platforms such as Shopify and Pointy can facilitate an initial move into the on-line space. The E-commerce Association of Ireland can also provide many useful resources. The online journey must be user-friendly, top sellers displayed prominently, real-time in-stock information available and robust from a payments security perspective.

What are your thoughts on how the retail landscape has changed in the wake of the pandemic and the surge in online shopping?

The retail sector in Ireland is very diverse – Covid-19 and its impact has only highlighted this further. Economists have been speaking of a K-shaped recovery – we have seen a K-shaped performance in the sector in recent months.  Grocery/Furniture/Home sub-sectors have all been performing strongly but other sub-sectors such as fashion and department stores are operating in a much more challenged environment.

Retailers have been focused on keeping their customers/staff safe, managing cash-flow, understanding Government requirements and rushing to get online – it has been a challenging and worrying time for many. However, they also need to stand back and remember the first principles of retail: 

  • Know and understand their customer
  • Get the customer in/Get back the customer back/Enable them to spend a little more each time
  • Ensure the drivers of customer engagement are consistently met:  Excellent service/standards, accessibility and value.
  • The effective delivery of these principles drive the lifeblood of any retail business – “Recurring sales”.  Retailers need to ask themselves – how can I best deliver these principles to my customer at present – this will be the catalyst for choosing the appropriate sales channel, marketing plan, etc.

What does this mean for retailers without an online offering and what advice do you have for businesses considering the leap into digital?

The author William Gibson once wrote that “the Future is already here – it’s just not distributed equally”. Shopper behaviour and the retail sector in general are always evolving and in recent years this has led to an omnichannel offering becoming more prevalent.

Covid-19 has accelerated this evolution even further and consumers now expect a complementary blend of digital and physical platforms from their preferred retailers.  If retailers want to maintain customer engagement they need to strongly consider providing a digital offering.

The move into digital needs to be considered and complementary to their existing offering.  Less is more from a range perspective and meeting customer expectations in respect of delivery and quality/provenance of product are imperative.

There is unprecedented goodwill in the market towards Irish retailers and products at present – Irish consumers want to support Irish retailers to sustain Irish jobs and communities. It is a great time to deliver a digital offering to the market.

As always, strong engagement with your core target customer pre- and post-launch is key to maximise your profile and ensure that your offering is tailored to deliver an excellent customer experience.

Video: How to get your business selling online

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 6 January 2021