Niall Bodkin, founder of the E-commerce Association of Ireland points out that instead of fearing online giants like Amazon, the opportunity is there to compete with them.

Before Christmas there was a surge of goodwill by the public to “buy Irish” goods online based on the logic that this would help preserve jobs and support businesses fighting for survival in the face of the trauma caused by Covid-19.

At the time commentators were saying that around 70pc of e-commerce purchases on the island of Ireland flowed overseas into the coffers of giants like Amazon and eBay.

“The way forward is integrating your digital offering into your physical business. It’s called an omnichannel approach and is one of the biggest trends in e-commerce over the last 10 years”

A lone voice, however, pointed out that this had actually fallen to a lower figure of around 60pc because of the sheer number of firms that had digitised their businesses since the Covid crisis hit these shores with the first lockdown in March.

That voice was Niall Bodkin, founder of the E-commerce Association of Ireland (eCAI) who truly believes that Irish retailers don’t necessarily have to fear the Amazons of the world but by emulating their best practices can compete just as effectively.

Over the coming weeks ThinkBusiness will focus a series of articles on the omnichannel future of retail including how to go online and sell as well as case studies of businesses that have adapted, including SMEs that have successfully received funding as part of the Government’s Online Voucher Scheme and the Trading Online Scheme. 

What are your thoughts on the imperative to get more Irish firms trading online?

It’s imperative that every single firm trades online, whether B2B or B2C. There is no “should I” in this scenario. The question is when. 

“I personally believe that retail and e-commerce will complement and thrive together”

All businesses will move trade online in some form eventually. Do you get in now or do you wait until after your competitors have secured their foothold and advantage over you. 

What are the most practical steps a business can take today to build a presence online but also using your platform (Click Irish)?

  1. Think about your brand, your customer persona and your marketing strategy. Find websites in your arena that call to you and pick the functionality and parts that you would like to see on your business offering. Save the ideas to a folder or scrapbook. 
  2. Think about how you want the whole customer experience to look like. From the very first time your customer sees your brand right through to when they receive your goods and service and aftersales service. Where do you want to be? Budget or bespoke. 
  3. Choose your partners who will best deliver this journey. 
  4. Talk Talk Talk – Try and talk to those who have done it already. Online sellers. Web developers. e-commerce professionals. It’s better to learn and avoid the pitfalls before you fall yourself. 
  5. Developers may be the more expensive option, but they could save you in the long run. Find one that has experience in e-commerce. They will have seen and advised their customers. 
  6. If you use a ready-to-go solution make sure they have the support and literature to see you through. 
  7. Start off slow. You don’t have to put every product you have on your website. You can start with the most popular, niche or oversized. It will give you energy to see results early rather than months of data input and minimal orders. 
  8. Use your knowledge and personality. Today, video is king. Enjoy it and have a bit of fun. The big advantage you have over mega platforms is your knowledge and walk-in local service ability. Use it to your advantage. Give every communication option available to you. Nothing beats phone service. Use your social media to connect with your customers. Don’t just bombard them with sales pitches, get involved with their stories as much as your own. Give value to those watching you. Showcase and give opinions on your product or services. 
  9. Seek Supports. There are a lot of supports for Irish businesses to get online at the moment. The most noteworthy for SMEs is the Trading Online Voucher from your local enterprise office. These grants can go some way to helping you get online or upgrade your existing systems. Choose your developer or tech partner carefully. We hear some horrendous stories. You can come to the eCAI for impartial recommendations. You might also try meetups, when we can meet in person again. They are a great way of meeting others going on the same journey. The eCAI has a digital version and we can pair you with other sellers.
  10. Get your imagery right. Spend wisely on a good camera or high-end phone. Nothing beats a professional photographer, but today’s technology also allows you to do it yourself. Some high-end smartphones make it simple and produce very high quality photos and video. You can have the best website in the world, but if your graphics and imagery let you down, its pointless.
  11. Choose your partners wisely. They are an extension of your business. Find out what people are saying and don’t pick on price alone. They are the touchpoints of your business. They must reflect the level of service and personality you offer across your whole business. 
  12. Be creative. Its fun. Standing out and offering a good customer experience is the battleground of the next 10 years. 
  13. Protect our earth and community and get your green credentials up front. 

How does the platform work and what are the best tips for making it perform?

The eCAI offers its members access to the eComHub, a business network and Click Irish, a directory for genuine Irish websites. 

“We need to offer an alternative that breaks down those reasons why shoppers are reaching to foreign e-commerce”

Sellers of any type, can join Click Irish for free and list their website and upload “offers for shoppers” on the Click Irish directory. During Covid we are also giving free eCAI membership worth €120. Click Irish is not just about shouting “Hi, Im Irish”, it’s about developing ways to offer an alternative to e-commerce giants and winning the 60% of business that is currently going abroad. 

Our eComHub is a peer to peer learning environment where we encourage members to join, connect and interact with each other. Just like the very best product reviews come from other customers, the very best advice and recommendations you can get for your business is from other sellers. 

It’s a business network a bit like LinkedIn, but only for e-commerce sellers and professionals. We can pair you with another seller to bounce off and you can connect with many more. We offer free mentors who have volunteered their time to help others through Covid. 

When we first started, we asked our members what they wanted. They overwhelmingly said they wanted to learn and connect. That’s what we have given them. 

What are your thoughts on the future of retail in a world where online could become a preferred way for consumers to shop?

I personally believe that retail and e-commerce will complement and thrive together. It’s already happening. The way forward is integrating your digital offering into your physical business. It’s called an omnichannel approach and is one of the biggest trends in e-commerce over the last 10 years. 

We can’t dictate to customers what to do. Nobody likes being restricted. If they want to see your products 10 different ways, then we must try and offer those solutions. But don’t be put off or overwhelmed by all of this. Start with your website. Baby steps. Further down the line, introduce a tablet with your website on it, to give real-time information to your customers on the shop floor (if you are a physical trader). This approach will add an impressive service and cement in the customers mind that you have an online offering. 

Retail and the high street is not going away. The failings we see on TV are more to do with some retailers overstretching and the high cost of rent. Amazon and eBay are trying to get onto the high street. It shows you the importance they see in it. 

The high street needs to change and adapt. They need to do this now. They need to do this together. No one business can tackle the might of some of the global e-commerce giants we know. A co-ordinated approach led by professionals from all disciplines need to agree on a strategy. That is what the eCAI is trying to achieve with Click Irish. We will be holding councils and seminars to talk this matter through and offer a clear alternative. 

We can’t tell shoppers what to do. Amazon is not evil. It’s amazing to use and people love it and want it. We need to offer an alternative that breaks down those reasons why shoppers are reaching to foreign e-commerce. We need to win that business back and make sure the high street is the central point of service for all our e-commerce needs. 

Video: How to get your business selling online

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.

Pictured at top of page: Niall Bodkin, founder, E-commerce Association of Ireland

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

Published: 15 January 2021

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