Long before we had computer hardware we had traditional hardware, the kind that includes everything from seeds to ceiling paint.
Topline Rogers, a hardware store in the town of Ballymote, Co. Sligo, is more traditional than most, being in its sixth generation. It opened in 1870 and is run by members of the same family, brothers Pádraic and Mícheal Rogers. But behind the doors of the business, which still closes for lunch, is an ecommerce juggernaut that has, since the first Covid lockdown, turned itself into one of the most successful online businesses in the country. As well as an ecommerce website for consumers, mybuildingsupplies.ie, it has a dedicated portal for builders and self-builders, mybuildclub.ie, and sends everything needed to build a house anywhere in the country at the tap of a screen. “We also have a live chat facility for customers, so they can ask questions of our staff at the trade counter,” says the store’s ecommerce manager, Aidan McCormack.
Today ecommerce sales account for around a third of its revenues, helping to sustain the business into its seventh generation and beyond. It’s a good example of the kind of transformation that has been accelerated since Covid struck.
But the trend was already in evidence. Fabiani, a luxury boutique in Longford, first opened its doors during the Great Recession.
But it was when owner Louise Brennan decided to change the retail model, moving to a much bigger, three storey premises, with a coffee shop and beauty bar on the ground floor and a yoga studio on the top, that the business took off. It quickly became a meeting place where customers would meet up for juice and a class, do some shopping and have a coffee afterwards, “spending three hours in here all in all,” says Brennan.
Brennan excels at the kind of experience-based retail offering that looks set to reinvigorate town and city centres still struggling to recover from Covid. With shoppers of all ages now used to online purchasing, new kinds of retail offerings are required to lure people off their sofa.
Indie Füde in Belfast set up as an online business in 2014, selling artisanal food online. Today it has two stores and a pop-up market selling not just a wide variety of gourmet foods but experiences such as supper clubs, hampers and adventure experiences with a culinary bent – such as kayaking across Strangford Lough for a picnic. A relentless focus on quality produce saw it named Blas na hÉireann Producers’ Champion for 2022. It stocks over 700 independent artisan Irish products with the team hosting regular tastings and meet the maker events.
In 2020 owners Johnny McDowell and Laura Bradley opened “The Cheese Edition”, a store on Belfast’s Ormeau Road where the focus is on the very best of Irish cheese and where every member of the team is a member of the Academy of Cheese, meaning customers have the experience of benefitting from in-depth knowledge. According to Artie Clifford, Chair of Blas na hÉireann, consumers have reconnected with their local independent retailers over the past two years, “and value the knowledge and appreciate the time they get when they shop local,” he adds.
But retailers are going to have to continue upping their game if they are to stay relevant to consumers who have spent the best part of two years shopping with their fingers. “The consumer is definitely more aware of, and comfortable with, online shopping now. Even though confidence is being restored in bricks and mortar there has been a huge increase across all generational cohorts about online, and I don’t think that will ever go back,” says Roisin Woods, a retail expert from IBEC. “The challenge now for retailers is that they are up against the high online sales levels of 2020 and 2021, for which they didn’t have to do very much. Consumers were in lockdowns, so retailers got those online sales without much effort. Now the struggle is to maintain that growth and to keep the momentum going.” That requires retailers to put real effort into marketing and undertake a much deeper analysis of customer shopping behaviours and patterns, she suggests.
Internal silos need to be broken down so that retail data flows more seamlessly, and in real time, among everyone from buyers to marketers. Retailers and their staff need to be up to speed with social selling which, she predicts, will surpass online sales from websites by the end of this decade.
“Already we are seeing shops doing 10-minute livestream broadcasts, live streaming onto facebook or their website, with calls to action to get people to go and buy in the session,” she says, likening it to traditional QVC selling via mobile phone. “It’s not expensive to do this, which means these kinds of activities are no longer exclusive to big retailers with big budgets. In fact, it’s more suited to SME retailers who have that loyal customer engagement,” she explains.
Indeed, if anything, the current digital transformation is helping to power the emergence of a new raft of indigenous retailer. “I think there is a huge opportunity for independent retailers now who can offer unique brands,” she says. For example, city and town centre retailing has seen the withdrawal of a number of fashion brands closely associated with the UK’s ‘high street’, such as Oasis and Warehouse. The result could see town centres repopulated less homogenously. “Seven or eight years ago we looked to these multiple retailers which had cloned the high street for inspiration. Now customers want choice, they want experience, and they want a connected feeling, and that’s what independents can offer,” she adds. But retailers can’t be complacent, she cautions. “Customers want experience, and value, and they want it on their terms, when and where they want it,” she explains.
Fulfilling that, whether in store or online, requires more of retailers and retail staff. That, in turn, requires training.
“Retail is no longer just a job in a shop,” she says. Rather it requires a panoply of soft and hard skills, someone who can interact with, engage and advise the customer either online or in store, can interpret data analytics, run customer relationship management programmes, and produce nifty content on Tik Tok to boot. Through Retail Ireland Skillnet, employers can ensure staff get the training they need, from certificate level all the way up to executive masters.
Ensuring the sector is equipped to cope with the challenges and opportunities ahead of it is vital, given that it employers more than 300,000 people, and supports many thousands more through the supply chain, often in small, family run businesses that reach into almost every corner of the country. It may not grab headlines but in every region retail is either the largest or second largest employer, with its share of employment typically ranging from 12% to 15.5%. Many of those jobs are set to become what might be termed ‘knowledge economy’ jobs, given the increased adaptation of cutting edge technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. Covid has lifted the shutters on what retail’s future might look like. “Lots of businesses had to pivot very quickly to have a strong online presence, that includes many Irish businesses that had been behind the curve internationally and who had to move very fast to build front end shops and back end processing capabilities, which has ultimately been good for them,” says Owen McFeeley, a retail expert with PwC. Yet he believes bricks and mortar stores will always have a central role for retailers, long into the future. “It will change, it will become more experiential, and customers will visit them with different expectations. In reality the successful retailers will be those who can really operate in an omnichannel environment seamlessly, providing the same experience to customers both in store and online,” he adds. “As a customer I can go in and see a product and go home and buy it online, or I can see it online and opt to click and collect in store. I can buy online and do my returns in store. The retailer will have to seamlessly provide all of that and do it well. But I think we will still want to see and touch and feel products and it appears retailers think so too, because they are continuing to invest in their buildings.” Increasingly brands will understand the role of online for them, and of the store, and how both will work together, he says.
“One challenge going into the future is that as consumers we will go to stores less, but when we do go, we will demand more. The experience has to be higher. As a retailer, getting the customer to visit you is an opportunity but you really have to nail that experience.”