Local enterprise offices are ready to help small traders go online…
LAST month Niall and Rosemary Daly launched Chocolate.ie, the online version of their shop in Cork’s English Market that opened in 2000. The site marks the end of a digital journey that hasn’t always been sweet. Their first website was a simple “brochure” site that couldn’t take sales. In 2010 they upgraded, working with a web developer who could manage an ecommerce site.
A few months after launch, however, the company told them it could no longer offer the service. The pair shopped around for an alternative provider but the platform was unpalatable. They went back to the brochure site.
It was dispiriting. “There had been a huge amount of work involved, mainly by Rosemary, uploading product information and pictures,” said Niall Daly. “And because of what happened she was uneasy about doing it all again.”
A government initiative saved the day. The trading online voucher scheme, which provides funding and information to help small companies to take their business online, encouraged them to dip their toe back in the digital water.
“Buying a website is like talking to a mechanic about your car, you don’t really have a clue what’s going on under the bonnet,” he said. “The voucher gave us the push we needed to go forward.” The site is now launched and taking sales.
Initially rolled out on a pilot basis, the trading online voucher scheme looks set to continue next year under the auspices of local enterprise offices (LEOs). At the Dublin LEO, for example, the next information day is on January 20.
Despite the increasing trend towards online spending, less than one quarter (23%) of small businesses in Ireland are thought to be engaged in ecommerce selling. For businesses employing fewer than 10 people, the figure is reckoned to be even lower. As a result, 70% of Irish online spending goes overseas.
The trading online voucher programme provides matched funds of up to €2,500 and an obligatory seminar aimed at helping companies to ask the right questions when looking for an ecommerce solution.
A business must have fewer than 10 staff, and a turnover of less than €2m. It must be registered and have been trading for at least a year.
Vouchers can be used for IT consultation, developing or upgrading an ecommerce website and implementing online payment. It can be used to purchase internet-related software, develop an app, or implement a digital marketing strategy. It can even be used to buy online advertising, up to the value of 30% of approved voucher costs.
Vouchers cannot be used for a brochure website, non-internet related software or for offline trading activity.
Business owners should be aware of how much work is involved. “For every individual item you stock, you have to provide short descriptions, long descriptions, prices, amount in stock and images alone: that’s huge and it’s work you have to do yourself,” said Alan O’Meara of Almedia Web Design, who runs ecommerce seminars for LEOs.
Generating traffic takes time and it falls to the owner to work social media to generate traffic or to pay for online advertising.
Decisions must be made about payment. “If you’re a craft seller, for example, you might be keen to sell on Etsy which is great,” said O’Meara. “The downside is you are introducing the customer to thousands of other similar products.
“PayPal is also great but it has the downside that it brings people away from your site to its site. We can see from our data analytics how many customers drop off at that point, often because they think they need to have a PayPal account when they can pay by debit or credit card too.”
It takes time to recoup an online investment. “You won’t see much in the first 12 months, which is hard because we live in an impatient world. The key is perseverance.
“I ask how do you advertise in the offline world?” said O’Meara. “Well here’s your online equivalent, here’s how to take an ad on someone else’s site, for example.”
He advises keeping a budget for promotion and identifying the most cost-effective way to fulfil orders, either by post or courier, and factoring in the cost of a returns policy.
“There is no point engaging a company to develop your website if it is not providing training as part of the package,” said O’Meara. “It’s really important to get a site that you can update yourself with ease.
“If you see a site you like, call up the company and ask who did it for them and how they got on.”
Security is important for ecommerce too. New etailers should consider taking out a maintenance contract with a web developer to ensure hacking doesn’t lock them out of their site, he said.
Perhaps most importantly, the site should be optimised for mobile. “I’d be dubious about any website developed in the last two years that isn’t mobile-responsive,” he said. “Google announced six months ago that it would start to penalise sites that are not mobile-ready.”
Holly Breen is launching a fully responsive version of her website walkshoes.ie next month.
Breen set up her family shop Walk with parents Joe and Fiona and partner Barry Dwyer in 2009. Breen and Dwyer had returned from a backpacking trip and opened a Birkenstock pop-up shop for six weeks that summer “just to make some money,” said Breen. “We got busy and stayed busy ever since.”
Walk Shoes still operates from the same store and stocks dozens of brands. Two years ago she launched walkshoes.ie. The response was instant. “We test launched it for a two-hour demo to see if everything worked and that payments could go through,” she said. In the two-hour test period, the company made two sales.
Up to 15% of sales now come online, many from overseas. “My aim in January is to come off the shop floor and focus completely on driving ecommerce sales,” said Breen. “I’m taking on an intern to help me do it.
The business employs six people. “I’d like to have a full-time, dedicated ecommerce team. I know UK online shoe stores making sales of £90,000 a day, so there’s loads of potential.”
Her advice to anybody looking to tap into the online market is simple. “Do your homework and understand the fundamentals,” she said. “There are a lot of cowboys out there providing web services so you need to understand what’s going on.”
Mobile traffic was 25% of the total last year, this year it is 40% and growing. “I know we’re losing customers by not being fully mobile optimised,” Breen said.
Goldsmith Irene Leahy and her husband Paul Leahy, of IMB Jewellery Design, gave up their bricks and mortar shop in Paul Street, Cork, to run the business entirely online from their home in Kilkenny. While there are still costs — such as photography and graphic design — it makes better economic sense, said Paul.
“We had the shop for around 16 years until we closed it in July 2014,” he added. “Taking the business online entirely cuts out so many overheads and we don’t have the commute.”