Asking a Dubliner the way to a nearby cafe can yield not only detailed directions, but also advice on site-seeing along with a small dose of politics, as I discovered last month. I was fearful of running late for my meeting with Karo of karoArt ceramics, a ceramicist who had agreed to share her story of becoming an online seller in Ireland's capital city. But the help from a stranger, delivered in an Irish brogue with a native Dubliner's twist, set the tone for a busy but relaxed week-long exploration of ecommerce in Ireland.
After arriving at The Fumbally cafe and exchanging introductions, I asked Karo one of my foremost questions about selling in Ireland. How does she reach enough buyers in a country with a population comparable to the state of Kentucky (less than 5 million) - compared to the population of nearly 319 million in the United States?
Above: Karo of karoArt ceramics in Dublin, Ireland
Karo sells online at Etsy, her own site, and at markets, stores and craft centers, and she embraces international sales, which was true of the other sellers I spoke with on my trip.
Karo reached into her pocket to get answers to help me understand. Consulting an app on her smartphone, she revealed that 80% of her sales were international. 70% of those sales came from the U.S.; 20% from the UK; and 10% from the rest of Europe.
That's quite an accomplishment given the fact Karo designs and makes by hand heavy (and breakable) items such as bowls, mugs, and sculptural pottery wall hangings.
Helping her deliver goods to customers is An Post (pronounced "on pussth"), Ireland's postal service. She says many sellers are unaware of An Post's courier services. With pick up, she doesn't have to carry her parcels to the post office in what would be a Herculean and time-consuming task give the volume and nature of the goods she sells.
Another artisan seller named Andra, whom I had met in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock the previous afternoon, described a challenge she faces with her international sales - expectations around delivery. "U.S. customers think an item will take 3 months to be delivered from Ireland," she said, "when it generally takes a week." Her items weigh .3 kg, and she sends her orders in envelopes with no tracking via An Post.
Above: Andra of BornRubie in Blackrock, Ireland
Andra, a Michigan native who moved to Blackrock with her Irish husband, designs Bohemian and ethnic-style jewelry and sells online through her BornRubie shop on Etsy. She accepts PayPal and credit cards, but no matter where they're based, the majority of her customers pay for items using credit cards.
While Etsy is starting to become better known in Ireland, Irish shoppers her mother's age aren't as likely to shop online as they are in the U.S., Andra tells me as we share tea at the Mellow Fig cafe a block away from the waters of Dublin Bay.
Andra described another challenge, one that might not occur to a seller outside of Ireland - the price and availability of raw materials. It's far more difficult to get the kind of beads she uses to create her jewelry in Ireland than in the U.S., so she became an online buyer herself, sourcing material from abroad.
Irish sellers also cited inventory management as a difficult juggling act, something multi-channel sellers everywhere can relate to. Karen of Swinky Doo Designs is based in Listowel, a market town in County Kerry. "My biggest challenge as an online seller is finding the time to update new products. I found it very time consuming updating products on my own website and then having to duplicate the exercise on Etsy - especially when new products were introduced, item details changed, postal rates increased and "in-stock" items were sold."
Karen makes textile art and had set up a website using Magento, using Google ads to drive traffic to her own site. She decided to move exclusively to Etsy for her online selling. But it wasn't just to eliminate the duplication of effort. She discovered that when she started regularly updating items in her Etsy shop, her sales on Etsy increased. "I don't have to pay for Google advertising fees and there's no more duplication listing products," she said. That frees her to develop the product range and make more goods, and she's satisfied with Etsy's fees.
For Karo in Dublin, inventory management is particularly tricky. "Stockkeeping is my biggest challenge," she said. Getting an order for a sold-out ceramic piece is disastrous, since it can take 4 weeks for her to make an item. No one is allowed to touch the items she has set aside in her workshop for her Etsy shop, she said, using the tone of someone who has learned a lesson the hard way.
Karo set up her own website in addition to Etsy to address the local market, so she turned to ecommerce platform Shopify, in great part due to its integration with Etsy. She was able to set up the shop on Shopify by herself based on the themes they provide.
Just as Andra in Blackrock, Karen in Kerry pointed to some reluctance on the part of her Irish customers to actually buy her textile pieces online. Karen finds that while people use her website as well as her Etsy shop and her Facebook page to view her textiles, buyers generally contact her directly to place an order.
"Whenever I do events, fair and markets in Ireland, I always stress to customers that they can contact me by phone to place an order," Karen said. "Saying that, I've also received online orders from customers in my local area, who are always delighted when I offer to refund the postage costs and deliver in person."
Above: Karen of Swinky Doo Designs has a strong, memorable brand - shown next to one of her pieces
Karen said that on Etsy, 70% of her customers pay by debit or credit card. She also accepts payments via bank transfer, PayPal, cash or check.
Approximately 40% of her income comes from online sales, the remaining 60% from direct customers and retail sales. And, she noted, approximately 60% of her income comes from international sales, both from her online presence and from overseas visitors to Ireland through retail purchases.
All international orders are sent via registered post so that items are trackable, Karen said. "That tends to be a bit expensive, but customers don't seem to mind as most of these online purchases are one-off special gifts for baptisms, christenings, new babies and weddings."
She is also an online buyer, citing the same challenge as Andra - "It's very difficult to source fabrics and craft supplies here in Ireland, so I buy lots of stuff online." She sources much of her product from the UK.
A week in Ireland can fly by, and before you know it, you're at the airport with euros burning a hole in your pocket. Never fear, you can "buy before you fly" at the airport, whether you're looking for inexpensive souvenirs or quality crafts.
That's where I found Sallyann of Sallyann's Handmade Bags, displaying her wares in person at a table inside the last duty-free shop before going through US customs in Shannon.
Above: Sallyann of Sallyanns Handmade Bags
Sallyann is from Ennis in County Clare who makes her handbags from a small sewing room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The temporary display area inside the Aran Sweater Market was courtesy of GlenAran - she and four other craft traders from Clare Crafts Association were invited by the retailer which was looking for local crafts to promote in its shops.
Sallyann said she has found it difficult to get found on Etsy, but thanks to Digital Clare, an initiative of the Clare Local Development Company, she was planning to attend a workshop on SEO and Google analytics the following week. Her website is set up on Wordpress, and she plans on adding an extension to enable ecommerce on the site.
Sallyann uses PayPal for her online transactions, but said cash remains the main method of payment at market stalls. She also has a card reader from SumUp.ie that allows her to take credit card payments, meaning that at the airport, she could process sales using bank cards from the US, Ireland, UK and Germany. "I've found that having the card reader has certainly boosted sales, and I have had people buy multiple bags because they were getting them on their card rather than handing over cash."
Unlike Andra and Karen, Sallyann finds people in Ireland to be very open to online shopping, no matter their age. "Ecommerce is growing in Ireland all the time, and buyers are not confined to younger Internet users. I find I make sales across age ranges."
"Because I am currently selling to people that contact me via my Facebook page, I generally build up a bit of a relationship with them as we work out what bag they want. We then complete the transaction via PayPal, and I generally message them to make sure the bag has arrived."
The biggest challenge she faces is likely one every online seller can relate to: time - or lack thereof. "I am primarily a sole trader, so everything is up to me. Time is my enemy - I do not have enough hours in the day to make my bags, prepare orders for shops and markets, and develop my online presence."
Sallyann said County Clare has done a great deal recently to help small businesses to get online and using social media. "Using the hashtag #DigitalClare, there have been tweet ups on Wednesday evenings, which have morphed in to #ClareHour now they are established."
As I waved Sallyann goodbye and got ready to board my flight back to Boston, I had one consolation: with my appetite whetted for all things Irish, I don't have to wait until my next transatlantic flight to satisfy my urges. I can explore online marketplaces, search engines, and social networking sites, thanks to the efforts of artisans and the organizations that support their efforts.
Be sure to see our additional coverage of ecommerce in Ireland in today's issue.