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'Businesses have adapted fast and moved online. April's .IE registrations were up a third'

David Curtin, CEO of IE Domain Registry, says digital is crucial to the long-term survival of SMEs

David Curtin

THE ERA OF social distancing is here to stay. That means that many businesses will find it hard to stay open, particularly those that rely solely on customer footfall to physical premises. 

Against this increasingly challenging backdrop, digital technology and online resources can be a lifeline for retailers that want to keep trading during this difficult period.  

We have noted the remarkable speed at which many businesses have been able to launch or improve their online offering. Many small retail stores that might have underused their websites in the past are now realising the full potential of what they can offer, especially in terms of maintaining sales. 

Other well-known shops and services that have shut temporarily have moved to a full e-commerce model, ensuring some staff are retained and sales continue.

Some businesses, which previously had a very limited online presence or no online presence at all, are now finally seizing this digital opportunity.

IE Domain Registry data shows that new registrations of .ie domains in April increased 30% compared to the same month in 2019, demonstrating that innovation and entrepreneurship is alive and well despite a difficult trading environment. 

Opportunity and adaptation

Our latest SME Digital Health Index, which analyses Irish SMEs and consumers’ attitudes to digital technology, shows almost 6 in 10 consumers (59%) say that making online purchases is ‘important’ to them.

More than half (53%) of Irish consumers want their local main street shops to offer a full online shopping service (such as direct-to-door delivery) and 45% want a click-and-collect service. 

Recent stats from Wolfgang Digital reinforce this narrative. According to their weekly Online Economy Report, in the third week of April online retailers saw a 68% increase in traffic on pre-Covid levels. In the same week, online revenues were up 185%. 

As we adapt to a new normal of social distancing, queues, and limits on numbers in stores, the businesses that offer their customers digital convenience will prosper.  Consumers want convenience, so businesses that offer home delivery, click and collect and other customer-focused services will thrive.  

Support is available 

Moving from a physical shop-front to an e-commerce or online model for the first time might seem challenging, particularly in the current situation where time is of the essence and money is tight. 

Luckily, there are financial and technical supports available now that can help businesses get online fast and start selling their product or service. 

Local Enterprise Offices across the country have been quick to provide information and supports, with many using webinar technology to host live training events for SMEs. A business continuity voucher has been made available to businesses through their local LEO, which can be used to develop short- and long-term pandemic strategies, including advice and guidance on setting up an e-commerce platform. 

The Trading Online Voucher (TOV) scheme has also been expanded to offer even more businesses vouchers of up to €2,500 to support digital enterprise. The increased flexibility of the scheme means that SMEs that may have availed of the voucher before can apply for a second one to aid the upgrade or enhancement of their online offering. 

The e-Commerce Association of Ireland has set up a “task force directory”, which pairs e-commerce experts with SMEs who want to pivot to trading online. Additionally, the association is offering free membership to any company looking to get into e-commerce for the first time for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.

Other industry organisations have moved promptly to put supports in place for their members. For example, the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland has launched a webinar series for designers and makers, covering a range of topics from digital marketing to producing social media-ready video. 

E-commerce experts, digital marketers, and web developers all over the country are also offering their support to SMEs. Sligo-based dmac Media is offering free website help for frontline healthcare providers, allowing them to get important information to patients, clients, and the general public quickly.

Web developers Aura Internet have built a website, www.buyingonline.ie, with comprehensive listings of Irish SMEs selling online.  

The future is regional 

A long-term, substantive change in Irish SMEs’ adoption of and attitudes towards digital technology can only occur with large-scale action—and that starts with the government taking a ‘regional digital hub’ approach to its national digitalisation initiatives. 

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While this won’t be practical in the current emergency phase of the pandemic, it will play a major part in Ireland’s recovery. 

Prioritising digital skills training and internet infrastructure upgrades in smaller towns and regions of high-growth potential will help SMEs, citizens, and wider communities back to their feet and set them up for future growth. 

In the long term, digital has the power to help rejuvenate Ireland’s ailing main streets, keep local talent in the community, and open up stagnating or isolated areas to larger markets. 

David Curtin is CEO of IE Domain Registry, the company that manages .ie, the preferred online address for business in Ireland. You can view a full list of the digital supports available for businesses during Covid-19 here. 

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David Curtin

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