Enter the new age of Irish e-commerce

30 Nov 2020

Image: © shintartanya/Stock.adobe.com

The pandemic has caused plenty of problems for Irish businesses, but there are reasons to be cheerful with the digitalisation of small retailers, writes Elaine Burke.

I consider myself a veteran of online shopping. It’s no glittering achievement – online shopping and online shoppers are nothing new and plenty of us have been transacting online since it first became possible.

Yet, every year, I have surprised friends and family with tales of sourcing sought-after items and discovering new retailers through online searches, and taking advantage of click-and-collect services to minimise the stress of venturing into town at Christmas. They would marvel at my savvy, but I would be surprised the whole thing wasn’t much easier – particularly when it came to buying Irish.

Meanwhile, a staggering 82pc of US households hold Amazon Prime membership. Of course, the Irish market doesn’t compare to the US, where e-commerce has been driven into hyperdrive by Jeff Bezos’ tech behemoth, but the Irish market has been slow to adapt to online shopping when it comes to consumers and retailers.

As the rate of online shopping grew in Ireland, these sales were being driven by overseas brands who had the market sewn up. Amazon, Littlewoods and ASOS mopped up while Irish retailers shrugged off the opportunity to capture these customers. Indeed, how could they even compete with these flashy, well-established platforms?

Enter Green Friday, an initiative, like so many, born in the crucible of Covid. With the entire country aware of the struggles of local businesses trying to survive amid the closures required for the sake of public health, a campaign began to support Irish retailers in the festive shopping season. Shoppers were ready and willing to spend to with Irish businesses. The question was, would they find stores open for online shopping?

It seems the pressure caused by Covid was the final push Irish SMEs needed to embrace e-commerce, with hundreds of retailers receiving Government support to help in this shift and many others finding new ways to adapt. The lacklustre adoption of online shopping practices frustrated industry bodies across the country for years, unable to pin down why it wasn’t quite taking off here. Turns out what we needed was a public health emergency. Who would have guessed?

Retailers who may have previously seen no need for an online storefront had no other choice under Covid. In a pandemic, you have to go online or go out of business. Your reliable bank of local customers have to stay at home and there’s only one way to reach them.

So, for this year’s batch of Christmas shopping, I have been thrilled to find the ease I’ve long desired for buying Irish. I have discovered independent retailers in Navan, Clifden, Middletown and more, and I’ve cheerfully handed over my card details to support them.

This is how I always do my Christmas shopping and, generally, I’m not a bricks-and-mortar browser. I can find the process of shopping in-person stressful, frustrating and overwhelming, and prefer to do it all from the comfort of home. And I’m sure there are many more, for a multiplicity of reasons, who find online shopping infinitely more accessible.

Irish retailers are now open to online shoppers in a way that they never were before. And with this flipping of the sign to shout ‘open for business’ from Google’s search pages, we have the opportunity to become a nation of online shoppers who fervently support local and small businesses through this great invention.

Because e-commerce was always heralded as a gift for small retailers, offering them the chance to achieve the reach of bigger players by going online. In most markets that’s not at all how it has panned out. Instead, the big and powerful platforms have swallowed up the independent retailers and homogenised the transactions.

Not so much here in Ireland, though. In my week of online shopping for Christmas, I enjoyed a variety of shopping experiences, each with their own individual touches. There were warm notes of thanks in emails and in packages, customer support teams led by helpful human beings, and a general friendliness to the experience. There are people behind these transactions, not faceless algorithms. And I’m so happy to part with my money to support the kind of e-commerce economy these companies are building.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.