How Irish retailers are adapting to post-pandemic shopping habits

With the Covid-19 restrictions lifted, retail is learning live with the new normal

As the curtain fell on 2019, Gráinne Mullins had plans. Having won the prestigious Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year competition, she had the culinary world at her feet, with the promise of a post in a top Indonesian restaurant.

In her early 20s , she had dreams of seeing the world, sooner, rather than later. But then Covid happened and all of her plans were immediately derailed. Rather than despairing, however, she made new ones.

From her parent's kitchen table in Kilchreest, Co Galway, the pastry chef used her kitchen talents and on social media platforms to create a retail chocolate business that has grown at a phenomenal rate.

In the spring of 2020 when, locked down like the rest of the country, Mullins made a few hand-painted Easter Eggs for her family. Having posted the results on Instagram she was immediately inundated with requests for more.

I started online and I think that will always be important. There will always be people who will want the ease of access, but I think the future will all be about balance

In response she opened an online business and went from her kitchen to a purpose-built chocolate factory in the West before, more recently opening concessions in Brown Thomas, in Galway and Dublin.

Having created her business in a lockdown and expanded it as Ireland moved through the Covid-19 crisis, she is well placed to talk about retail in a post-pandemic world and why the future will be as much physical as it is virtual.

“I started online and I think that will always be important. There will always be people who will want the ease of access, but it is not everything and I think the future will all be about balance.”

That need for balance explains her desire for a place in Brown Thomas: “It was one of my dreams to be able to explain to people what we are about and since we opened we have had a lot of people coming in who might have heard about us, but didn’t realise what the chocolates looked like.”

Physical interaction

She has also met customers who have been buying from her since the very start. “There were people coming in who I recognised from their orders but we had never met. There were even one or two customers who brought a tear to my eye. They have been buying from me since day one and I never met them, was never able to see them or smile at them, so to see them and to say ‘thank you’ was just so lovely.”

That physical interaction and the visceral experience of retail will be key to the survival of the sector, according to Duncan Graham of Retail Excellence.

“There is no question that transactional shopping will continue to be done online,” he says. “If you want to buy a screwdriver or some other one-off purchase you might turn to the internet for that. But what we will see is more retailers really focusing on the physical experience people so clearly missed at the height of the crisis.”

“Almost overnight at the start of the crisis shopping became very fast, it was an in-and-out thing and it wasn’t something many people enjoyed, so I think in the months and years ahead, the real winners will be the retailer who make the experience really good, the ones who offer a personalised approach.”

Graham knows there are big challenges ahead: “I think the first big challenge is staffing. Many migrant workers left the country and that is going to bring challenges as things bed down. There will be a lot of new people coming at sales assistant level, so there is going to have to be enhanced training.”

Local shopping is here to stay, though: “We have discovered things in our neighbourhoods that we didn’t know existed and it will take us a while to tear us away from that. The thing that will tear us away will be price, but we won’t lose the connection very quickly.”

Hybrid shopping is the future and, more specifically, experiences that connect from the physical store to digital platform

An as-yet unpublished piece of consumer analysis from research company Core seen by The Irish Times has tracked consumer behaviours trialled during the pandemic.

In 2019, less than a third of all consumer spending in Ireland was done online. Within a year, it had jumped to 38 per cent. By the end of 2021, the online spend had risen to 41 per cent.

“While retail lockdown is unlikely for 2022, this ‘learned consumer behaviour’ likely won’t retract, meaning every €40 out of every €100 spent by consumers will be through digital channels in 2022 and beyond,” the report says.

New habits

The Core research suggests that 77 per cent of people will shop in store as the world moves through the pandemic, while 64 per cent of the public will shop online – a figure, it says “that was not imagined in pre-pandemic times.”

Consumers will stay with retailers who make shopping more enjoyable, as well as those who fulfil online orders properly, and on time, the report says.

However, despite many closures in Irish towns and cities over the course of the crisis, “the physical retail store is not entirely in demise. Consumers will expect showrooms or enjoyable spaces to explore and trial new products or receive great face-to-face customer service.

“Hybrid shopping is the future and, more specifically, experiences that connect from the physical store to digital platform. Retailers who understand the full journey of a customer will succeed the most – and this journey begins before the store or website/app and often on media platforms,” the report goes on.

Damien O’Reilly is a retail analyst and academic at TU Dublin and he is optimistic about what lies ahead for Irish retail.

“I think 2022 and 2023 will be good with an increase in retail sales of between 3 and 5 per cent,” he says.

Clothes will see a big bounce as people return to offices and start socialising more, while the return of big spending overseas visitors will also see sales increasing.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand and we also have very high levels of savings and that should see spending assuming that inflation doesn’t take hold in a really significant way,” suggests O’Reilly.

Support for local businesses is likely to endure and while he says big retail parks and shopping centres will do well, he expresses concern about smaller retail parks and shopping centres. “I think some of them will struggle unless they have a mix of retail that will bring people in in large numbers.”

In the longer term, he believes retail will have to more fully embrace technology if it is to stay alive. “There was a surge in online shopping and that will endure but more has to happen in that space. People talk about everything being online and when it comes to entertainment you have everything on your mobile device but e-commerce in Ireland is in the Stone Age by comparison.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast