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Dublin: 0 °C Monday 30 March, 2020
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'We are scared': Businesses closed by Covid-19 switch to online sales and deliveries to survive

From cafes to bookshops, businesses are hoping online sales get them through the coronavirus crisis.

Books Upstairs in Dublin is delivering 'self-isolation book bundles'.
Books Upstairs in Dublin is delivering 'self-isolation book bundles'.
Image: Shutterstock/Derick Hudson

WITH HIGH STREETS quiet and shop fronts shuttered across the country, many small businesses have been looking at their options online. 

It’s not a route every business can take. Already, thousands of jobs have been lost across the country and many more will follow. 

However, for those businesses that can, the online world is providing something of a safeguard amid the coronavirus crisis. 

In recent days, small businesses have taken to Twitter, Instragam and other social media sites to remind customers that – even while premises are closed – online stores are still open. 

Cafes and restaurants have been particularly quick to pivot away from table service to takeaway. Cafes – if they’re not staying open – have focused on the sale and delivery of coffee beans to customers, while many restaurants have also stepped up deliveries. 

Niall Wynn, who runs the Proper Order cafe in Dublin’s Smithfield, told TheJournal.ie that he’d been shocked at the surge in orders for coffee. 

“We decided at midday on Monday to close our doors. It wasn’t worth the risk to the team,” he says. Wynn, who hasn’t laid off staff, said that he quickly worked out what to do next.

There was a delivery of coffee on the way, he says, and it was “too good to go off”.

“Within a space of half a day, I set up the webshop with a designer,” says Wynn.

The reaction so far has shocked him. With 60 deliveries today across the city, he says he’s kept busy.

“We’re seeing an initial spurt from this, but it probably will die down a bit,” he says. 

Wynn says he’s more worried about the cafes who might not have the same following or can’t switch to deliveries. “Those smaller, lower turnover cafes, they’re the ones I fear for,” he says. 

For Sheelin Conlon, the founder of the Dublin-based zero-waste store The Kind, there is an element of familiarity to shipping out online orders. 

It’s where her businesses began, she tells TheJournal.ie. In that sense, she counts herself lucky. “It’s not starting afresh,” she says. 

Still, things are difficult. “Every order makes a difference,” Conlon says. 

“Right now, I’m not holding my breath to re-open. I’m accepting that this is what we’re going to be faced with for the next few months.”

Conlon is innovating. As well as offering free shipping to all customers in Ireland, she’s enclosing a free bar of soap too. And Instagram, she says, is proving crucial. 

“Instagram remains the best platform to have that virtual retail experience. You want to be able to talk to customers as if they were coming into the shop,” she says. 

“There is still business. If I can continue online, I’m not so worried about opening the store again.”

With an online presence suddenly crucial, one Irish businesses is offering retailers a free online platform for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Patrick Horgan, the founder of NRG Store, says his company initially focused on providing a site and delivery service for the retail sector. 

“The idea behind NRG Store was to provide consumers with a wide choice of goods and services that would allow them to fully complete a home build from start to finish,” he says.

“However, we believe that the platform can be adjusted to support many more businesses who risk a significant drop in traditional income as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

It’s an idea that small businesses might welcome. Neil McDonnell, the CEO of the Irish SME Association, told TheJournal.ie that they “loudly support anything which supports the retail channel at the moment”.

“Widening the pipe will become absolutely essential in the event there are further restrictions on movement or a full lockdown,” he said. 

Of course, online services won’t work for everyone. And not every business was ready for the changes introduced since the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Books Upstairs, a well-known Dublin bookshop, is currently without a website but is still doing the best it can to operate on an online basis only. 

While not all bookshops have closed, Louisa Earls from Books Upstairs said they felt like it was the only decision they could make for people’s safety. 

“We were scared. We are scared. It goes against every instinct,” she tells TheJournal.ie

The bookshop, located on Dublin’s D’Olier Street, was forced to reduce the number of staff in employs because of the closure. 

Now, the bookshop is focusing on a combination of normal sales ‘self-isolation book bundles’ – curated by staff to customers’ tastes and which can be collected or delivered by post. 

The response has been incredible, Earls says. “They’re keeping us very busy. People seem to like the idea.”

Earls says that she wants to remind people not just that her bookshop exists, but also that the next while will be tough for any author launching a new book. 

“We want to remind people there is new work being published,” she says. “We have got lots of ideas, but we’re trying to adjust to this strange new reality”

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