Food for thought: Things to consider when transitioning your business online


As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the globe over the past 6 months, many businesses in the retail and leisure sectors have had to quickly adapt the way they offer their goods and services to customers. The government drew a line between "essential" and "non-essential" services and depending on which side of that a business fell, the vast majority of shops, restaurants, pubs, gyms, cinemas and theatres had to grind to a halt in the UK in mid-March. Some of the more traditional bricks and mortar businesses were able to stay open and offer their goods and services for delivery, collection or takeaway, particularly restaurants and eateries, others closed temporarily to reassess how they could tackle the changes being forced upon us, and others have sadly shut down completely.

The good news is that it is not all bad news, we live in a more connected globalised world than ever before, and there are tools available to help businesses adapt to this new way of living. With the help of some innovative and creative ideas, we are hopeful that the retail and leisure sector can bounce back by concentrating more on their online offerings.

We've seen already that online fitness classes have taken off on Instagram Live and other online media platforms, pubs and restaurants have been able to avail of the change in planning laws to offer takeaway/delivery services (for one year) through online delivery companies like Deliveroo and Uber Eats, and restaurants like Patty & Bun and Pizza Pilgrims have been offering DIY home kits for sale on their websites. We are seeing a myriad of ways that brands can adapt and this is in large part thanks to being able to offer services online through e-commerce.

So if you are thinking about moving your shop or your restaurant online, what in particular do you need to think about?

  • Protect your brand: it goes without saying that you should take as much care to protect your brand as you do your products and services, and one of the best ways to do this is by registering trade marks for your name and logo.  You may already have a trade mark which covered your pre-Covid operations, but if you are now thinking of moving online you should look at whether your trade mark covers off your new use of your trade marks. Especially if you are considering a new name for the online offering, a new variation of your logo or a new slogan. All of these are potentially registerable as trade marks. Your online offering may also help you reach overseas markets that would not have been served by physical stores and this might therefore be a time to consider obtaining protection abroad.
  • Check your domains: It's likely that you already have a website and a domain name to go along with it, but if you are now considering e-commerce, it is a good idea to consider expanding your domain name portfolio. Obtaining the right domain name can mean more traffic goes to your website and having a .com or a domain name (as opposed to .co or other alternatives) will make it easier for customers to find and trust your website. Beware that cybersquatting is a real issue in the realm of domain names. This is where someone registers a domain name using a well-known company name or brand name, or one they know would be particularly desirable for a business to have depending on their services, with the intention of hijacking your consumers or selling the domain to make a profit. Unless you have a registered trade mark for the name in question, it can be difficult to enforce your rights against a cybersquatter, so to avoid this issue you should (i) register the domain names most important to you as soon as you can and (ii) consider registering your brand/company name as a trade mark.  
  • Data, Data, Data: whether it's the use of cookies on your website, payment card information, or the customer's contact details, moving your business online means that you'll probably be exposed to more data (and in particular, personal data) than ever before.  This can have huge benefits for business; it can help you to better understand your customers, to develop longer-term relationships with those customers, and in turn to improve your services.  But you must ensure that your use of this personal data – your collection of it, use of it, sharing of it – complies with data protection laws.  By failing to do so you risk fines of up to €20 million or 4% of annual global turnover.
  • Be a champion for your customers: consumers have a number of additional protections when they shop online as compared to shopping in store.  One of the best examples of this is a customer's right of cancellation.  Unless a product is faulty or not as described, customers do not automatically have the right to get a refund if they bought a product in-store (although many brands do offer generous in-store returns policies).  However, if the same customer bought the same product online, they are likely to be protected by a statutory right to cancel and receive a refund, without having to give a reason.  Consumer law is extensive, and so it's really important that you are up to speed on your customer's rights and your responsibilities.
  • Promote your products properly: all advertising has to comply with advertising laws, but you may be more likely to advertise your products now you're operating online.  And if you're using social media, your adverts may be more limited in space.  Whether you're running a discount sale, a gift with purchase promotion, a chance to win one of your products, working with influencers, or advertising your new & better than ever before recipe, you need to make sure that your adverts aren't misleading, are accurate, and comply with all advertising laws.

There's a lot to think about when you move your business online, but there's no doubt that it has been a lifeline for many businesses during the current Covid-19 crisis.  We expect to see many more businesses move online over the coming months, and if that's going to be you we hope these tips offer you a bit of a head start.

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