How Scottish retailers are pivoting to e-commerce during the Coronavirus

Scottish businesses must embrace online delivery to avoid plummeting profits and risk of closure.

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That’s the warning from several retailers in Scotland as further restrictions loom in order to curb coronavirus. Many businesses had to close their doors earlier this year to obey a nationwide ban on non-essential shops.

But scores of Scottish businesses are surviving and thriving by going online to supplement their traditional trade. They’re now urging others to do the same.

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“We had to get real with what was happening or face closure,” says James Stewart of Gilmartin’s Bakery in Stewarton, Ayrshire, recalling the first days of lockdown. “Many businesses decided to close up, either because they had to or because they didn’t think there was an alternative. But we knew that our customers still wanted our freshly baked, locally-sourced goods. Using digital was the best way to keep trading.”

James, originally from the Shetland Islands, along with wife Steph from Paisley, bought the old Bank of Scotland premises in Stewarton in 2019 in response to growing demand for local produce. Steph’s baking prowess and James’s business acumen soon saw the café bustling with customers.

But the pandemic forced the couple to rethink their business model. After a first attempt at using Google Forms to get online orders – they were getting up to 60 completed forms a day – James knew that a more seamless option was needed. “We were calling and texting 60 different customers a day to confirm orders and delivery details,” says James.

Now they’re using a simple website where customers can browse products and buy goods at the click of a button. Locals can request click-and-collect or delivery options.

James says: “It’s seamless and brilliant, and it’s a necessity. The pandemic has brought forward the shift to online by at least five years in our view, so I urge other Scottish business owners to do it now or risk falling behind the competition.”

James has also learnt more about the behaviour of his customers and can more accurately predict when customer demand will happen. He can see when shoppers are abandoning their digital baskets while discovering their preferences on goods. Steph can also plan what to produce and when, monitor stock levels and predict which staff are needed on certain days to satisfy demand. “It’s got so many advantages,” adds James. “We are not letting this virus close us down – we’ll fight.”

Many stores are using a new platform called Mercury Order – a cheaper and more suitable option than traditional shopping platforms that are designed for bigger retailers with hefty budgets.

It was created by digital agency Grofuse initially for wholesalers, but the pandemic made it clear that the platform was ideal for retailers too.

Grofuse director Ian Cullen said: “I was going to the local shops for my parents, who were afraid of leaving the house to buy essentials. It suddenly dawned on me that the demand for goods like these was here to stay, and people were looking to support the local economy too.

“The supermarkets were overwhelmed by the sudden spike in demand for online deliveries. Websites crashed and delivery slots vanished – so I knew there was an opportunity for local businesses and people who wanted to carry on shopping in their neighbourhood.”

Few small retailers have the time or capacity to make a rapid switch to digital – but existing online platforms like Mercury Order make it easy. Cafes, shops, bakeries, restaurants, cafes and pubs can easily introduce ‘click and collect’ and/or delivery options for customers. “It can be done in a day and businesses can be up and running online. It’s so simple,” added Ian.

“Shopping local and online convenience was already surging before Covid-19 struck, so this new way of doing businesses will only get bigger.”

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