According to the latest research by OFCOM, the average Northern Ireland consumer is likely to own a smart phone, shop online and use social media. So Northern Ireland clearly doesn’t lag behind in the digital media revolution. However the report does expose potential weaknesses in the use of digital communications by local businesses to support their operations, marketing and sales.
New forms of devices including tablets and smart phones are having a major impact on how people access the internet to shop online, access news and services. According to the OFCOM report, the number of people owning a tablet in Northern Ireland has increased by 16% in the past year with one in four households now owning one. Smartphone ownership now stands at 55% and the average NI consumer is now using a smartphone on the go to access services, use social networking sites and purchase online.
The modern multi-channel consumer now expects to be able to research products and services via a smart phone, and increasingly purchase through them as well. However, the rapid rise in consumer use of smart phones has caught a lot of businesses off-guard. Many businesses are now faced with having to rapidly adapt their online marketing to take account of the massive increase in smart-phone internet usage. A website may look ok when viewed on a PC or laptop, but can display very poorly when viewed via a smart-phone. This wasn’t a big concern for businesses 2-3 years ago, but that’s clearly not the case now. Businesses are now investing much more in ensuring their websites display well on smart-phones to encourage more leads and sales.
The report also gives an interesting insight into local use of online retailing. According to the OFCOM report, there has been an 8% increase in the number of people here using the internet to purchase goods and services – up from 60% in 2013.
The figures strongly reinforce the overall trend in consumer retail. In fact the UK is the leading country in the world for online retail accounting for nearly 13% of all retail spend and is set to rise to 23% by 2018. The reasons for the rise are numerous and include cheaper prices and increased choice online. Mobile devices also serve to increase the convenience of online shopping with Amazon and Ebay leading the way in mobile apps designed to make it easier to purchase from any location.
The relentless rise in online retail should serve as a wakeup call to the local retail sector, many of whom could be selling online and benefiting from a huge growth area. The recent woes for the retail sector across UK and Ireland are part of a trend in customers shunning the high street. Traditional high street spend has declined from 50% in 2000 to 40% in 2014 and store closures are expected to increase by 22% by 2018.
SMEs and The Internet
OFCOM also explores the use of the internet by small to medium sized businesses here. The majority of SMEs are making use of the internet to order goods and services (83%) and make payments (58%). Given the huge impact the internet and social media has had on the ability of businesses to improve efficiency, customer sales and marketing, it surprising that there is such a low investment from local businesses here. Only a minority of businesses are using the internet for marketing and sales (40%) and there is a similar low investment in taking orders and payments online. There is also a stark difference in businesses who have failed to invest in a website presence. Nearly 30% of businesses here do not have a website. The figures are higher still for rural businesses who lack a website presence with 41% of rural businesses not having one.