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Fashion online retail is a fiercely competitive area; here, an Irish retailer might find themselves fighting for business alongside stores from all over the world, not to mention giants such as Amazon, ASOS, Shein, Littlewoods and more. But for Greenes Shoes, with seven shops in Letterkenny, Galway and Limerick, an improved online presence meant opening their market up beyond their geographical area, and most importantly, providing insurance during the unprecedented effects of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Recognising that the retail environment was changing rapidly, Orla McFadden, general manager and director at Greenes Shoes, applied to Enterprise Ireland’s Online Retail Scheme to improve their website, a move that was to pay off immensely in 2020.
“We began our website about ten years ago, as we knew that online was going to be a big part of the future for retail. We started off small, with only our bestsellers and just one image per shoe, and it’s only really in the last couple of years that we’ve really concentrated on it.
“I think you also have to remember that a website is not just about selling online; a lot of people do their research online before coming into the shop to buy. So we felt that having a presence online was vital for our business. The main challenge online is competition, but there’s also the challenge of showcasing our brand to a wider audience amidst all of that competition and driving more traffic to the website.”
But rather than being put off by the intensely competitive nature of online fashion retail, Orla and her team decided to go for it, applying for the scheme to update their website’s platform. “Our previous platform was quite old and when online activity increased during the first lockdown, I realised how much manual work was involved in fulfilling orders. So I used the money to move to a platform that was integrated with our stock system and with our couriers.”
Orla was already planning the new site, and when lockdown hit and Greenes had been accepted for the scheme, she was able to give the project her complete attention and get the new site up and running as soon as possible – which she achieved in mid-April 2020. “The timing was ideal as I was able to concentrate on it 100%, and obviously when trading stopped, so did our cash flow, so knowing we have that funding there for the job really was a godsend.
“It was harder for people who had no online presence at all because it was a lifeline during lockdown. The updated website allowed us to do a lot more ourselves, such as putting certain products at the front of the site, rather than having to ring a company to do it for us. For instance, at the start of the lockdowns, sales of healthcare workplace shoes, such as nurses’ shoes, just went through the roof, and we were able to promote these and put them to the front of the site so easily. The customer journey was so much easier too. Really, it was like chalk and cheese between the old and the new website.”
With the bricks and mortar shops closed for a third of 2020, the increased online business was a lifeline for the company and showed Orla and her team that just because the shops were shut, this didn’t mean that people did not want to shop for shoes. “About ten days after the shops shut, online picked up and rapidly increased after that. You could see then that people still had the appetite for buying shoes and if they couldn’t come into the shop, they’d go online instead. And in a way, I think the crisis changed people’s buying habits.
“Our online business plateaued and levelled when we reopened, but they stayed at a much higher rate than before the lockdown.” says Orla
Orla now believes that their website is the perfect accompaniment to their seven shops, especially as consumers have now adapted to shopping online. “I think online really is the way of the future,” she explains. “You don’t know what’s coming down the line, so it’s good to have that part of the business developed. I think people have changed their habits too, maybe discovered how handy online shopping is. Plus it opens up our business to the entire country and beyond.
“I can’t open a shop in every county in Ireland but by going online, I can sell to every county. We also have customers in the UK and Europe, and this is something we’d like to develop further.”
And with Brexit causing issues for Irish shoppers on UK sites, Greenes is in a great position to increase their business both online and in-store. “I think we will benefit from Brexit; added charges and longer shipping times might encourage Irish people to order from Irish retailers instead. Also, I think the Covid-19 pandemic has made Irish people more inclined to buy Irish and support local retailers, and Brexit has just intensified that.”
For now, as she awaits the signal that their shops can reopen, Orla is concentrating on improving the website even further. “This time, we’ll invest in adding extra functionality to the site, such as store locators, giftwrapping, a virtual shopper to show you more styles that you might like in the same category or brand. These functions will make the site even smarter and more user friendly, and really establish Greenes as a strong online retailer.”