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How going online was a lifeline for three businesses during Covid

For many small businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic they needed to call in expert technical support to upgrade their website

Businesses had some chance of survival during the Covid lockdowns if they had a strong website and technical expertise close to hand. Smaller businesses found themselves shut down, locked out and forced to move the whole shebang to online trading when the emergency hit home. To remain viable they urgently needed to upgrade their website presence to stay afloat and call in expert technical support. Fortunately that support was in plentiful supply.

Sonia Reynolds and her business partner Francie Duff were running the fashion and retail outlet known as Stable of Ireland when the pandemic hit. Founded in 2015, their eclectic and Celtic store is an authentic source of traditional Irish fashion products with woven blankets, linens and sweaters and specialised homewares.

So how did they manage to survive and increase their online presence during the pandemic?

“When the pandemic hit we had to close our flagship store,” says Sonia ruefully, recalling those anxious days. “We knew we had to convert and adapt to a much stronger online format to keep our sales buoyant. So with that we pivoted our whole business on to the website.”

With the extensive range of products and vast varieties of crafts to upload they had to call in the expert. Fortunately they had an expert close to home as Francie's husband Carlo Creighton manages the digital team.

They needed to create a more powerful online presence, and he was experienced on the tech side of things. They came up with an eye-catching and easier to use website that interfaced well with the end-users. To maintain a strong profile they needed to attract attention from overseas customers who would cherish the connections with Ireland when they were banned from travelling.

Merchandise

Glancing through the website windows Sonia and Francie utilised high quality images with clear text descriptions to highlight the very finest ranges from their stable. The site was simple to navigate and showed off their wares clearly, along with their latest merchandise concepts like linen masks to best effect. Together they also ensured that they had a stronger online presence by targeting their loyal customers with neat gifting ideas and also upped their SEO (search engine optimisation) ability.

“Coincidentally, just before Covid we had designed a range of comfortable travel face masks just without any idea of how popular they would be!” says Sonia. “Here we were promoting Irish Travel Masks and they were flying out the door because linen has strong antibacterial qualities too,” she adds light-heartedly.

Francie and Sonia emphasised the sentiment of “staying together when apart”.

“Promoting gifts was one way of keeping people, families and friends together when they were forced to stay apart or prevented from coming home because of the travel restrictions.”

Sonia knew their western seaboard woven pieces, handmade ceramics and mohair throws were particularly suited to the online wave and they maintained a sustained interest from discerning customers in the US and Europe. At the same time production was limited due to a lack of materials and fabrics also due to the recession. So sometimes demand outstripped supply.

The website represents a team of amazing weavers, designers and sculptors who are all experts at their crafts, and Carlo promoted them in an individual and talented way.

“We work with the very best of weavers and knitters from all over Ireland, both young and old. They are cherished, respected friends and a vital part of our team. The revamped platform exhibits their talents and skills.”

Today they have built a busy website that reflects the tradition and personality of the business, featuring handwoven scarves, organic clothing, Donegal linens and home accessories. The result is a tasteful browsing platform that avoids being a cluttered catalogue or a run-of-the-mill e-commerce stall.

Sonia and Francie are reaping the rewards of their work. Stable of Ireland is now on the global stage of luxury textiles and gift wares where it belongs. “In fact we have a stronger company now – through adversity we survived and came out better in the long run.”

Dining restrictions

Maggie Mu and her husband Jun Su were successfully running their Narra Thai and Asian restaurant in Stillorgan, Dublin, before Covid-19 came along like a wolf at the door. Suddenly they were faced with closure and the prospect of an ever-dwindling income unless they could turn their business around.

They had a fairly basic online ordering facility to their credit but nothing like what was required when their restaurant would face long-term lockdown and dire dining restrictions.

Maggie, although fluent in five languages, needed experienced assistance to build a high functioning website that could even grow their customer base. The complex coded language of websites and programming was not part of her linguistic skills.

Maggie and Jun had to think quickly so Barbara Elliot, the PR adviser from Touchstone Communications, recommended they get in touch with a freelance digital marketeer and web-builder Craig Freemantle.

Freemantle is the MD of www.clickbaitsocial.com, a social media and sales funnel agency that helps businesses to increase sales over the web. This tech expert was well versed in constructing user-friendly websites, and he was delighted to help and collaborated with the couple to create an easy-to-order website that would highlight their authentic range of exotic Asian and Thai dishes and takeaways.

“Craig was super and multi-talented with lots of marketing ideas. The online ordering really needed to be simpler and offer more choices and combinations without getting too complicated,” says Maggie.

“Our online presence was pretty basic at the time, although we had a strong loyal clientele in our restaurant,” she says. “However, we knew we really had to create a much more effective website to sustain income and maintain customer base during Covid. It was important that when lockdown hit that our restaurant and takeaway business could remain afloat.”

In fact Narra was fortunate in that the takeaway food business in general became very popular under Covid as the tedium of lockdown took hold. Cocooners sought relief from the anxious commute to supermarkets and endless days of baking soggy sour dough bread and flopped flambés.

Craig also made them aware of the timely technical local grants and the industrious couple took advantage of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council and Facebook grants that were put in place to help small businesses improve their website presence.

Craig explains: “They moved to Flipdish and vastly improved the Narra online menu selection system. We also shared ideas about how they could also do print ads to build greater awareness both on and off the website.”

Lingerie shop 

Susan Hunter runs a lingerie shop aptly called Susan Hunter that is tucked away in Dublin's Westbury Mall. It i s the sort of niche boutique that thrives in the good times, benefiting from a brisk trade with lots of tourists from the nearby hotels, regular customers and women treating themselves to negligees, silk wraps and luxury lingerie. However, when the pandemic hit Susan realised she needed to relaunch her website.

"We had a pretty basic website that was basically just an advert for the shop. I never saw it as an essential component, and technically I was hardly capable of changing an on-screen image of a laced bra without invoking the help of my previous website builder who charged me for the help every time. So, I was speaking to Barbara Stack, the PR expert, when the pandemic arrived, and she advised me to overhaul the online system.

"I got onto a superb tech support guy called Mark Brady, who owns a company called Square Integrated in Leopardstown . He works with small and medium-sized companies to get their business online," says Susan. "He was a terrific help and within a matter of weeks he got my shop online. He also told me all about the grants that were available, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't have to wait months for the finance – it all came to my aid quite quickly."

Mark knew that it was crucial to get the store up and running swiftly.

“Suddenly retailers were faced with a doomsday scenario and online retailing was their only salvation,” says Mark, who had the skillset to get retailers like Susan online within three weeks with a functioning e-commerce facility using Shopify or WooCommerce. “All our clients we worked with over the last two years survived, and many will say their online sales represent a significant percentage of their turnover ever since.”

Building a website is complex and time consuming. Mark took Susan through the maze step by step over Zoom meetings and clearly written instructions.

“He wrote out everything I needed to do in order to change my photos and texts. It was empowering. Soon all my stock was on the website with every individual code required and there were thousands of items. Mark also created the Alt Text version of everything for customers with visual impairment.”

It’s amazing that Susan never met Mark due to the Covid rules even though they were in constant communication.”

Special offers

Her website was her lifeline and became the virtual shop that had to be tended to every day.

“We upgraded our special offers and new arrivals as things get dated very quickly. I also avoided putting in pop-up ads as I find them annoying when I am browsing and purchasing online. For the same reason you don’t have to register to purchase an item on our site,” says Susan.

“The back end of a website is like a complex knitting pattern – if you get one letter wrong in the coding then it’s like dropping a stitch and you end up with a gaping error. You have to be meticulous. I used to think being a website designer was easy but it is very complicated and intricate.

“The sales started really gaining momentum and it was great to see each individual order coming in as my myself and my colleague Dinah oversee every purchase, making sure that the customer is getting what they expect. Like I might notice that someone has ordered a black bra with orange thongs – so I would get in contact to make sure that’s what they wanted or were they making a mistake.”

And there is support out there as well, according to Brady.

“With the help of the Local Enterprise Offices traders like Susan could get a grant of €2,500 for trading online. For many retailers their newly-found sales channel is here to stay, and has opened up their products to an international market.”

Now that Covid has loosened its grip on the business community how does Hunter feel about the website investment?

“The website is fabulous – it propelled us into action and made us realise the importance of online presence. I would find it extraordinary now to come across a company without a good website. We have been here 38 years in the Westbury Mall and with this extra string to our bow we will be here for many more.”