Will Digital Towns fix the low rates of e-commerce on Irish high streets?

3 Oct 2018

Wexford town at night. Image: brians101/Depositphotos

With Christmas approaching, Irish high streets risk seeing more euro enter the coffers of overseas digital giants. It is time to fight back, writes John Kennedy.

The IE Domain Registry (IEDR) has kicked off a new Digital Towns initiative aimed at combating the low rates of e-commerce in Irish towns.

The initiative comes hot on the heels of the IEDR’s Digital Health Index, which indicated that while the Irish online economy is booming – with e-commerce spend reaching €12.3bn per annum – Irish SMEs, especially retailers, are missing out and need to improve their capabilities in areas such as online marketing, customer data analysis and software.

‘Gorey Chamber of Commerce is taking a leadership role and has been proactive in driving many projects to develop the digital economy’

Quintessentially, this means that with Christmas approaching, retailers in regional towns across Ireland who have already had to endure years of recession will not only have to deal with shoppers heading to shopping centres in cities, but also the fact that consumers can get what they need and have it delivered from overseas retailers with just a few clicks.

Only three out of 10 SMEs (30pc) can take sales orders and even fewer can actually process payments for transactions through their website (26pc). Almost two-thirds (61pc) do not bother to promote their services online.

Digital Towns: Waking up the regions to e-commerce

Three people point to a computer being held by a man in a suit.

From left: David Curtin, CEO, IEDR; Amanda Byrne, district manager, Wexford County Council; Oonagh McCutcheon, customer operations manager, IEDR; and Minister of State at the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Michael D’Arcy, TD. Image: Mark Stedman

To wake retailers up to the threat and stimulate interest in the digital economy, the IEDR has launched the Digital Towns initiative, which will help local businesses and citizens develop digital skills.

As part of Internet Day 2018 on 25 October, Gorey in Wexford has been selected as this year’s Digital Town. Gorey was chosen for its achievements in cultivating a truly digital environment in the town, and for its ongoing successes in fully embracing digital for its residents and for local businesses.

IEDR CEO David Curtin believes that through showcasing its efforts, Gorey can inspire Irish towns to begin their journey to becoming fully digital. “The arrival of high-speed broadband in the town has stimulated a significant increase in digital activity. This includes the launch of the tech co-working space, the Hatch Lab, earlier this year. Gorey Chamber of Commerce is taking a leadership role and has been proactive in driving many projects to develop the digital economy, including actively promoting the ‘de-commute programme’ and encouraging enterprise investment in the area.

“With more and more consumers shopping online, in an e-commerce market worth €12.3bn in Ireland, it is important that Irish businesses throughout the country have the capacity and necessary digital skills to sell their products and services online.”

Also, in recent weeks, the Irish Government revealed the €625,000 pilot Online Retail Scheme, which was developed by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI) with Enterprise Ireland in response to a need they have identified for a step change in online capability in the retail sector.

By supporting a cohort of SME retailers with grants between €10,000 and €25,000 on a match-fund basis to enhance their digital capability, DBEI aims to encourage the retail sector in Ireland to develop a more competitive online offer. This will enable retailers to see an increase in their customer base and build a more resilient business in the domestic and global marketplace, both online and offline.

But will these initiatives on their own be enough to stem the digital tide of euro overseas and enable SMEs to up their game ahead of Christmas?

Digital only helps those who help themselves

To embrace digital, SMEs and retailers will need to want to help themselves. The efforts of the IEDR and the Government are to be applauded, but the desire to succeed online has to come from the storeowners, factory owners and employers who see their future through a digital lens.

The world is changing and online giants such as Amazon, Mytaxi, Spotify, Netflix, Facebook and Google are changing the rules of the business world so that it is almost unrecognisable. Smartphone-toting consumers themselves are changing and they want products, services and a high standard of customer care, with a velocity and immediacy never witnessed before.

Not every business was born to be a digital business, but the tools of digital to help promote services and encourage footfall should no longer be ignored just because business hadn’t been done that way before or it seems too complex or technical.

Firms should evaluate the help that is on offer, encourage interested employees to take ownership of the digital journey and just start. They could start small, using social media pages to engage an already local audience or community about new offers or deals. They could create an online ordering aspect to allow shoppers to buy or reserve items and collect them in-store or have them delivered to their door.

Every beginning is a start.

Wexford town at night. Image: brians101/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years