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Online trading has become a lifeline for retail businesses that have had to close during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Even when things eventually get back to normal, it’s widely predicted that the gains in online business will continue as consumers become accustomed to this way of shopping. Enterprise Ireland’s Online Retail Scheme is designed to help smaller Irish retailers develop their online offering – and those who availed of it pre- and during the pandemic have been reaping the rewards that a good ecommerce site can offer during difficult times.
One such business is Organico, a West Cork family-run healthfood business, which was founded in 1992 by Alan Dare and currently run by his daughters, Hannah and Rachel. The original bricks and mortar store was joined over time by a café and a bakery, and about a decade ago, by an online shop too.
“In West Cork there’s always been a strong interest in health, as a lot of people would have relocated here because they wanted to escape the mainstream,” explains Hannah. “As a result, we had a good customer base from the start. However, even though our customer base is spread out over all of West Cork and in the summer we would have benefited from the tourist trade, it’s still a limited market. So going online was an obvious move for us to expand our business.
“We first went online about ten years ago, when we had to choose between another bricks and mortar store and a website.
“We started out with just niche products on a WordPress site; now we have around 3,000 live products, and possibly another 1,000 products that either come and go or are in the pipeline to be added.” says Hannah
Expanding the business
For Organico, an online shop was a challenge as they offer such a wide range of products. Building this kind of ecommerce shop requires a lot of expertise, technology and funding, as a system needs to be put in place with such sophisticated functions as integrated stock levels to make order fulfilment as easy as possible for the company and for the business to be viable with less manual work. So before the company enhanced their online offering, Hannah and Rachel applied for funding from Enterprise Ireland’s Online Retail Scheme.
“We’ve had two rounds of the Online Retail Scheme, and Enterprise Ireland has been incredibly helpful,” says Hannah. “We received the first funding last year, and we applied because we wanted to upgrade the online shop software – which is a huge investment.
“For us, the funding was hugely helpful, as to get the expertise and the work of good ecommerce specialists would be out of our budget otherwise.”
“We also work with a digital marketing company who specialise in helping smaller companies. When you’re a small business it’s all about word of mouth; online was a completely different experience for us and you’re using a whole load of platforms you’re not familiar with. The scheme helped us access the right support for marketing our online offerings.
“The scheme has allowed us to access support companies, and I believe that is the scheme’s big benefit – to lift smaller retailers and allow them to compete with bigger companies.”
Overcoming Covid-19 and Brexit issues
For Organico, the funding couldn’t have come at a better time. “We were incredibly lucky because the funding came in before Covid-19 hit. We had a very busy Christmas with hampers in 2019, and we had to ramp up our production as a result. Then we had a little breather before the lockdown came in. But, by then, our new online shop was ready and we were able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by lockdown to build our online business.”
As Organico is considered an essential retailer, their shop is still trading – that said, online is currently playing a massive role in the company’s operations. “Right now, it’s nearly 50/50 between online and the main business because of lockdown. During the last lockdown we got so busy that we had to temporarily turn the website off; this lockdown, we’ve built that online business even further. This time we’ve also had local people buying online, which is new for us.”
Any boost is welcome for businesses in these tricky times, especially for retail businesses like Organico, who also have Brexit to deal with. “We’ve had time to prepare for Brexit, to source products directly from Europe,” says Hannah. “There has been a lot of improvements in labelling over the last few years, which has allowed us look for goods from places like Holland. That said, because of the nature of the deal, our preparations didn’t translate into a smooth transition and we’ve had a couple of issues, such as organic certification and foods of animal origin, which affects even supplements containing fish oil.”
Alongside dealing with these issues, Hannah is keep to set up the right structure to service their clients even better post-lockdown. “Right now, we’re hiring to strengthen our online team, and we’re having to expand the physical space too, to cope with the online business. We’ve decided not to reopen the café as it’s a big space and although we’d be busy in the summer, it’s too big a space for most of the year. We’re currently using it as a warehouse for online, but our long-term plan is to expand the shop to make it safer for shoppers post-lockdown, and to make it more efficient for picking up online orders. Good service for both online and in-person customers is important for success in the future.”