The retail trends of tomorrow, today – Business Post


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The retail trends of tomorrow, today

Lorraine Higgins, secretary general of Digital Business Ireland: ‘The pandemic sparked a true sense of patriotism.’ Picture: Fergal Phillips

Technological change, accelerated by the pandemic, has changed retail in Ireland and despite enjoying a rally during lockdown, businesses today need to continue looking at their technology platforms

The Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly accelerated the digitalisation of our economy, notably initiating a significant pivot towards e-payments. This was particularly evident across the retail sector, where decades of change effectively took place in a matter of months, said Lorraine Higgins, secretary general of Digital Business Ireland.

“Many retailers, who previously depended on their physical bricks and mortar premises, were forced to rely almost entirely on their digital operations,” she said.

This seismic shift saw retailers and other businesses demonstrate an agility that helped them retain a business offering. Customers, too, changed, with many expressing a preference for online shopping.

This was borne out in Digital Business Ireland’s own research, Digital Insights, which found consumers enjoyed the convenience and flexibility that it affords, while juggling competing demands.

“It is fair to say that consumers responded well to these changes too, primarily because they are time-poor,” Higgins said.

This in turn, led to a significant growth in the popularity of digital payments and mobile commerce, or m-commerce, with businesses and financial institutions at the forefront of change in the area.

‘For example, Permanent TSB introduced contactless payments through Google and Apple Pay, across its customer base, which is the type of innovation that will help Irish businesses to offer a seamless service guaranteeing customers security, accessibility and peace of mind,” said Higgins.

Global and local

Despite the sheer scale of international e-tailers, the threat of a move en masse to global giants was averted, with Irish businesses rapidly adopting technology to meet customer needs. The competitive threat has not gone away, though.

“The Covid-19 pandemic sparked a true sense of patriotism, as many consumers made a conscious effort to purchase goods and services from websites of businesses based in Ireland,” Higgins said.

This tended to peak around dedicated retail days, such as Cyber Monday or Black Friday, she said, but recent months had seen a drop-off: “It now appears that just a minority of consumers continually prioritise Irish websites, which is a disappointing reversal of pandemic trends. It is evident that some consumers prefer to shop from larger, European and pan-European retailers who may have the kind of brand recognition, digital functionality, and marketing budgets that smaller Irish retailers struggle to compete with.”

Nonetheless, Higgins said she believed Irish retailers could regain that same sentiment – if they invested. “Irish retailers need user-friendly websites and ePayment technology to be able to compete with larger European retailers.”

Supports do exist to enable SMEs to enhance their online presence, such as the Local Enterprise Office Trading Online Voucher Scheme, as well as supports and services from Digital Business Ireland.

Getting there

Ordering is only half of the journey, however: goods once ordered need to get to the customer. Indeed, delivery services have always played a prominent role in retail, and Higgins said the seven main delivery operators in Ireland had a combined annual turnover of €585 million in 2019. There are challenges for retailers, however.

Higgins said Irish businesses needed to take time to properly negotiate pricing with their delivery partners and ensure that they only engaged reliable operators with the technological functionality many consumers have come to expect.

“The convenience offered by delivery services generally proves popular among consumers too, but timely delivery is key,” she said.

Over the last number of years, considerable advances have been made in technology across delivery and logistics, in response to both digital transformation and the growing sustainability agenda.

For delivery operators looking to achieve net-zero ambitions, new vehicle technology would be crucial, she said.

“In the context of vehicles, many delivery companies are aiming to reduce their carbon footprints by electrifying their fleets. The technology in this area is incredible, and Irish companies have been at the cusp of this change. For example, distributors such as Harris Group have successfully sourced light commercial vehicles that are fully electric, with fast-charging capabilities and efficient battery storage technology.”

Beyond sustainability, across the delivery and logistics sector there have also been improvements in real-time tracking technology and integrated customer service functionality that provides an enhanced experience for consumers, providing an additional layer of security for the retailer. Both the retailer and the customer can remain fully informed as to the timeline for receipt of payment and delivery of goods.

The next step, Higgins said, was to use technology to enhance the customer experience, including in-store. Self-checkout, for example, while not necessarily critical for every business, could be about more than just cutting queuing time.

“In some cases, this will allow a retailer to redeploy the extra employee or indeed employees to assist in another area of the premises, which in turn, will likely help to provide a more enjoyable experience for customers.”

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