The Emporium Strikes Back

Here's how bricks-and-mortar retailers can compete - and win - against ecommerce rivals

Shop till you drop

Reports of retail’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Physical stores are here to stay, and they’re still an essential part of the Irish shopping experience.

. .

Retail is Ireland’s largest industry, employing more than 280,000 people. Yet it’s under pressure as never before.

Today, most buying decisions happen long before a customer visits a shop in person. In today’s market of almost-unlimited consumer choice, and increasing competition across all channels, it’s clear that small and medium-sized retailers must adapt to survive.

This eGuide was created using a combination of a survey of technology trends among Irish SME retailers carried out by Retail Excellence and Three, as well as input from leading Irish and UK retail technology experts and retail futurists.

This eGuide will show examples of how retailers can use digital technology to:

  • Enhance the in-store experience
  • Increase customer loyalty
  • Grow sales

We hope the information in this eGuide provides valuable insight for your retail business to help you gain a competitive edge.


1 in 5

Irish people buy from their smartphones every week

(source: PwC).


Online sales growth in 2019

(source: Retail Excellence/Grant Thornton/GfK)


of SMEs have no online presence

(source: Retail Excellence survey)


of Irish SMEs take sales orders online

(source: IE Domain Registry)


of SMEs have no online presence

(source: IE Domain Registry)


can process payments

(source: IE Domain Registry)


of Irish people can’t book appointments online for services in their local town

(source: IE Domain Registry)

Room to improve

Shopping habits may change, but the old retail adage of ‘know your customer’ holds as true as ever. However, that’s easier said than done when consumers are spending less time in physical stores, and more time online. Staff at the sharp end of retail know all too well about ‘showrooming’, where consumers will try an item for size in store, knowing they can get it cheaper online.

And yet there is opportunity for retailers

Many consumers conduct their early research and price comparison online, but they still want to complete the purchase in store. This trend is tailor-made for blending an online service like click and collect with in-store fulfilment. This is a great opportunity for retailers to give customers an in-store experience that will make them want to return again and again.


of Irish consumers would buy more from their local shops if they had some form of click-and-collect service.

(source: IE Domain Registry)

Trade up: how to boost your retail business

Every business faces their own challenges and prioritises in different way. If you want to jump ahead to the section of this guide that addresses your most pressing challenge, click one of the circles below...

High staff churn impacting customer experience

Retain valued staff to focus on exceptional service

Choosing the right technology

Choose proven technologies with demonstrable ROI

Improve customer loyalty

Replace card-based systems with apps or web-based loyalty schemes

Competition from ecommerce

Provide click-and-collect or in-store fulfilment

Online presence underutilised

Optimise your use of online and social media channels

...or keep scrolling to continue reading.

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Great service can be a differentiator

Great service can give bricks-and-mortar stores an edge over their virtual rivals. But keeping talented employees is yet another challenge at a time when wage rates and other business costs are rising. It’s a vicious cycle: what you offer in a physical store versus an online competitor is personalised service in its truest sense: you can greet the customer by name as they come into your shop. But if you can’t recruit and retain staff, it’s hard to maintain consistency in what should be a unique element of your business.

“Investing in quality retail staff will result in a more positive customer experience. Friendly, knowledgeable salespeople who provide attentive service, sound advice and willingness to help the consumer can be the difference in ensuring repeat sales and positive word of mouth that’s essential in today’s highly competitive retail environment.”

David Fitzsimmons, CEO, Retail Excellence

. .

Many retailers know they need to invest in technology to remain competitive, getting the budget to do so is another matter. And without a dedicated in-house IT resource, it’s hard to know where to turn to get the right advice to help them make the right strategic investments.

Did you know Enterprise Ireland provides grant funding programmes like the Online Retail Scheme to support SMEs in upgrading their online presence? In addition, Local enterprise offices operate the Trading Online Voucher Scheme, with grants of up to €2,500 to support small businesses in starting to trade online.

From a consumer perspective, it is genuinely a golden age of retail. There has never been so much choice, there’s never been so much quality at value prices.

Matthew Brown, retail futurist and trend intelligence consultant

Window shopping

When a customer visits your store, it’s a not-to-be-missed opportunity to delight them – and to earn their loyalty. Create a space they’ll enjoy coming back to visit again and again. Combine a memorable experience with attentive service. Ensure your in-store and online channels work seamlessly to feel like part of the same experience. Small changes can make a big difference. Here’s a taster of what’s possible today.

An experience to remember

One of the hot topics in the industry, experiential retail is all about making your store a destination, often with events and services that can drive product sales. Research from the US shows that growing numbers of consumers choose to spend money on an experience or event. In Ireland, 47% of consumers say the ability to quickly and conveniently navigate the store would improve their shopping experience. Creating more immersive experiences encourages consumers to visit stores, not only increasing sales but also forging memories of an enjoyable experience that will encourage them to return.

Customer experience affects every part of a retail operation, including store layout. By designing with the consumer in mind, retailers can make it easy for shoppers to move through a store, find what they’re looking for, and complete their purchase. Digital technology such as display screens and mobile payment systems provide many ways to deliver a memorable experience and improve customer engagement.

David Fitzsimmons, CEO, Retail Excellence

Enhancing the customer experience

As a retailer, it’s about taking a step back and asking: what is the customer experience of visiting my store, and how can I enhance that? It might be about the professionalism and knowledge of your staff. It might be about the convenience of enabling payments through smartphone apps.

Technology can enhance the customer experience. In a sports store, it might be a bluescreen that lets customers take a penalty in the Champions League final, or in a beauty salon, a smart mirror that lets them virtually try on different lipstick shades or hairstyles. 13.5% of Irish retailers said they are planning to use smart mirror technology in store (source: Retail Excellence and Three technology trends in retail survey).

This is about thinking strategically: what do you want to achieve, and how will the customer experience it? Knowing the answer to this will drive smart investment in technology.

The recent Retail Excellence and Three survey conducted for this guide shows a correlation between technology investment and strong return:



of retailers have an online
ordering and fulfilment option

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


provide real-time stock information

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


offer customer Wi-Fi in store

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


have installed digital signage

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


use sensors and beacons to track
customer footfall in store

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


say it’s made their business more efficient

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


say it’s improved customer service

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


report increased sales

(source: Three / Retail Excellence Survey)


added new product lines.

(source: IE Domain Registry)

Here’s what investing in digital technology can do for Irish retailers:


say it increases awareness of their business


increase in basket sizes for websites with the Trustmark


say it grows revenue


say it reduces costs and overspending

(Sources: IE Domain Registry and Retail Excellence)

From instinct
to insight

Retailers can use data from technologies like IoT sensors, anonymised Wi-Fi and loyalty apps, to tap into a true picture of shopping habits. By gathering real-time information about consumer footfall in store, retailers can alter the layout, displays or shelf arrangement, and quickly see what’s resonating with customers:

In store

Your customers can tell you a huge amount about their preferences by where they go within your store. There is still a way to go before retailers are getting the most out of their data, but the beauty about having rich customer information in real time is that you can quickly test a change to your window display or store layout, see if it works, and adjust accordingly.

You can gather this data by anonymised Wi-Fi, which ‘sees’ customers’ smartphones when they approach or enter the store. Alternatively, IoT sensors placed around the store compile information about shopper behaviour once they arrive. These sensors track customer dwell times, how long they queue, and the proportion of shoppers who go on to complete their purchases. 18% of retailers polled by Retail Excellence and Three say they plan to adopt this technology over the next three years.

Software presents this information to the retailer in the form of a dashboard, or heat map, which provides visual insights into shoppers’ movement in-store. This helps retailers’ decision making, such as how to optimise store layouts or where to place popular products to increase sales.

Larger retailers are using these types of technologies today, and it’s expected they will be within the reach of SME retailers in a year or so. Explore options now and give yourself a valuable opportunity to gain a competitive edge.


Measure customer movement outside, near and in your store using anonymised Wi-Fi or IoT


Analyse the data to identify movement patterns and dwell time around your store


Optimise your layout or adjust product placement on shelves to help consumers navigate more easily, or make them aware of special offers

On the move

Loyalty apps are another great source of insight about customers. Using apps rather than physical loyalty cards, retailers can build much richer profiles about their customers, based on their purchase history or browsing patterns. Just having an icon on the customer’s phone is a subtle reminder about the brand. You can also send personalised alerts directly to the customer’s phone through the app, building an even closer relationship with that consumer.

New trends to watch in this space include ‘omnichannel’ loyalty, where brands reward customers not just for purchases but also for sharing on social media, for example. Retailers will also be able to take the data they have about customers to deliver a more personalised service via the loyalty app. There’s a strong correlation between personalisation and increased customer engagement. 88% of retailers say that personalisation has improved their marketing effectiveness, while 76% of consumers say that personalised discounts based on their purchase history is important.

Three provides a loyalty service for its customers that enables smaller retailers to group together to offer combined loyalty schemes, or form relationships with complimentary brands, to drive footfall back instore.

In-store displays

Digital displays of all kinds offer intriguing possibilities for retailers. Agile and flexible, digital displays can show extra product information to help shoppers or upsell prompts like ‘15 of these were sold in-store today’ that can trigger an impulse purchase.

If you have multiple branches, in-store digital displays save time by letting you change a marketing message or a price offer across every store within seconds.

. .


are using digital signage in store


plan to adopt it over the next three years

(source: IE Domain Registry and Three Survey)

Checkout time: ideas for the future

Now that you’ve had a glimpse at what’s possible, here are some other suggestions for quick wins that can give your business an edge.

Blending online and offline

How can SME retailers compete using digital to add value for customers? There are lots of clever ways to start without breaking the bank. An online ‘click and collect’ service drives footfall to your store. For in-person services like hairdressing, or trades, think about adding an appointment booking function on your website, so it becomes an extension of your store.

Here are four ways to improve the click-and-collect experience.

Here are five ways to add online booking to your website.

Make a virtue of not being virtual

Physical shops have a huge advantage over online rivals: they have the space to host interactive in-store events like book signings, chef demos, makeup tutorials or nutrition workshops. Use digital marketing to amplify the message online pre- and post-event, building buzz about your brand on social media.

Here are 12 steps to promote your event on social media.

MORE READING: How to master social media for retail.

Open for business

Every store needs a sign, and it’s no different online: one of the fastest and easiest measures is SEO and paid search to push people to your site and make them aware of it.

Here’s how to drive traffic to your online store with SEO.

Driving loyalty

Get customers to connect with rewards schemes. Using tools like targeted email and SMS marketing software, you can quickly get a sense of what your customers like, and give offers aimed at bringing them back in store.

Here are 10 examples of innovative customer loyalty programmes.

Here are 16 great tips for effective SMS marketing.

Deploy bots

The next stage of customer experience will see use of chatbots on your website, particularly for managing simple interactions that can be resolved quickly without needing human intervention. Chatbots will also allow you to handle customer queries around the clock, even when your physical store is closed.

Here are six use cases for chatbots in ecommerce customer service.

Physical stores are here to stay, because we want to touch, and try, and taste and experience, and be part of a community, and have all of those things that the online revolution can’t do. The successful retailers of the future are going to have physical stores and online stores.

Matthew Brown, retail futurist and trend intelligence consultant

No time to lose

We know that for SME owner-managers, the most important commodity is time: to make adjustments and try experiments that could change your business for the better. It’s about making priorities, and embracing a ‘test and learn’ way of working. You don’t need to make it complicated: start simple, start small, and go from there.

Whether you’re a big brand that’s got a clear focus on customer innovation, or whether you’re a small independent player who’s nimble, quick to respond, and has that personal, human touch, the future’s really bright. By combining the best of new technology that can connect with customers digitally and seamlessly, with the old-school retail basics of great visual merchandising, great curation, great storytelling, great service, great hospitality – all of those things will combine together to create really exciting shopping experiences.

Matthew Brown, retail futurist and trend intelligence consultant