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Ecommerce: An Accelerated Move To Digital

Published Date: 24th June 2020

Niall Bodkin, the MD and founder of the Ecommerce Association of Ireland or the eCAI, speaks to Angus Sim to discuss how the e-commerce sector in Ireland pulled together to face up to the challenges of COVID-19, by creating a supportive ecosystem built on shared success and pooled knowledge helping smaller retail businesses to navigate the crisis.

At the start of the crisis, Niall explains, the eCAI responded immediately by setting up a campaign called the eComm Task Force, aimed at helping smaller retailers who had suddenly had their trade cut off by lockdown. The campaign was designed to facilitate the adoption of e-commerce channels to enable businesses to retain all-important revenue streams through pairing up experienced and first-time online traders through a mentorship network. The scheme also attracted web designers who could help build the online retail stores and payment mechanisms required, quickly. As Niall explains, “we put it out there and we asked people to come and help. We got an overwhelming response, which is a credit to the e-commerce profession...over 500 participants in three weeks.”

Mentorship was offered freely and as for design time, the SMEs could leverage the long-running government-funded Trading Online Voucher scheme which gave businesses support of 50% towards the costs of an e-commerce site, up to EUR 2,500. “From the get-go, the government have been spot-on,” Niall explains. “It used to be that businesses had to contribute 50% of the cost, but straight out of the gates, they took that right down to 10%. That money’s there to spend on building a website, marketing, advertising, that kind of thing.” More recently, the government have extended the scheme, effectively doubling the support available through a second voucher. The moves have had a dramatic impact, significantly increasing uptake which many agree is a great example of government and industry working together to stimulate a wave of economic activity.

Niall is personally really proud of the response: “The feedback has been phenomenal. All over the country, the goodwill was incredible. We've seen on social media, innovative, selfless ideas to boost companies getting online. We have mentors at the very top of their game, I'm talking multinational brands, at the highest level.” What’s more, Niall has been taken by the generosity of some of these global names, “we asked the developer community ‘what can you do?’ and they didn’t need to respond, they were out of the door with work, but they wanted to help. They gave websites that would usually cost EUR 5,000, for half price.”

From its foundation, the eCAI adopted a smart approach by going out and asking their members what they wanted. Overwhelmingly the response was that they want to learn from each other, which is why over the past year and a half the eCAI has put a huge amount of effort into building a community of shared interest. Consequently, eCAI became the ideal platform to serve members when COVID-19 struck.

“We were actually in a very good place in that we had this knowledge network there and ready. It's a bit like LinkedIn, but it's specifically for the e-commerce community in Ireland.”

The eCAI community allows members to contribute blogs, videos and helpful content that filters down from the experienced members at the top, to the start-up community. “People want to learn,” Niall says. “They understand that if we promote best practice, and high standards, it's better for the entire industry. Customers are put off by a bad experience. If you're put off by a bad experience with one e-commerce site you might be put off buying anything online for the next couple of months.”

Niall recognises that a rapid move to digital channels creates an increased risk of fraud for customers, which can have a serious knock-on impact on people’s trust of e-commerce sites. In fact, his organisation's message to start-ups and those desperately rushing to get online at the start of the crisis, was somewhat counterintuitive: “There's all this rush, rush, rush, get online, get selling online because people are panicking. The doors are shut. But we were saying stop! Get it right, first. Talk to these mentors. Talk to these professionals and get it right.” This way, if something does go wrong, the mechanisms are in place to put it right, quickly. Behind this message is the reality that vendors need to make sure that they have proper ‘Know Your Customer’ ID verification checks and anti-money laundering and due diligence processes in place to avoid putting the business in a compromised position and protecting the brand. “The right payment provider, great logistics and the right customer experience are really important long term factors.”

Ultimately, Niall says, it's all about doing the right thing by your customer. “We need to get that message across in a big way. Know your customer, analyse your data and give them what they want, when they want it.”

Looking to the future, Niall believes that there is no room for complacency. He warns that businesses must keep on top of events and protect themselves as things change. “Don't recede back in, don't be complacent, keep it going.”

On the whole, Niall is reassured by the massive goodwill shown across communities through this crisis and is keen that it be preserved and built on. “One positive we can take from this virus is that community spirit and working together. I think if we do work together we're stronger, and we'll thrive, and the economy will thrive.”

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