I presented at the IPFMA annual conference this week which was attended by nearly two hundred professionals charged with sustaining and growing footfall and spend in retail outlets throughout Ireland. Retail sales in Ireland are down between 20-40%, so the challenge facing these professionals is not to be underestimated.

While over €2 billion was spent in online purchases in 2009 by Irish consumers, it is clear that the bulk of that cash flowed out of the economy. We are shopping online for foreign holidays and for music, games and electronics. We have more engagement with iTunes, Amazon and eBay than we have with indigenous Irish brands. Based on an analysis (.pdf) of the top most visited websites from Ireland, just one quarter of our time online is spent on the websites of indigenous Irish brands. As a small island economy this is of course natural, but it is also starting to become a problem.

In an interview in today’s Irish Times, head of Google Europe, Ronan Harris suggests that Irish brands may have missed the boat. Consumers here have been building relationships with foreign, in particular UK brands; in many instances because local businesses just didn’t engage over the past number of years. Irish retailers he suggests became “a little too fat and happy.” He contrasts Ireland to the small but advanced online markets in Scandinavia who never think about creating an e-commerce site that doesn’t cater for other languages and currencies. He also suggests that we simply aren’t at the races when it comes to providing a good online experience for shoppers.

Irish retail legend Senator Fergal Quinn gave the keynote address at the IPFMA conference the other day. Listening to him talk about the basic building blocks of bricks and mortar retail it struck me that he has some key messages for e-tailers too. Fergal’s first principle in retail is to “alter what you’re doing to suit your customers.” He quoted an old Irish proverb that articulates this clearly; “Listen to the sound of the river if you want to catch a salmon.” Listen to the sound of the marketplace, and alter your offering to meet what it wants. This is why he famously spent so much time “on the shop floor” – because hearing customers say “I hate that” is invaluable.

His second principle is what he calls the “boomerang principle” – that the overriding objective of a business is to get the customer to come back again. If you can do this you don’t have to spend massive amounts on marketing. Give them a good experience so that they will not only say they’ll come back again, but they’ll tell their friends. One of Fergal’s protegés from his Superquinn days, Cormac Tobin who now runs the Unicare pharmacy chain, also spoke about this when he suggested that “customers only want two things; solutions to problems and great experiences.”

Whether you are managing a retail or an e-tail business, you’re best route to success is to listen to your customers in order to understand their problems and then go out and amaze them at how good you are at solving those problems. Focus on doing that and watch the monetisation opportunities emerge.

If you are interested in this topic, the Irish Internet Association are holding an e-commerce seminar entitled 8 Ways to Sell More Stuff next week which looks like it will be worth attending.