A move to high-end Irish craft gifts and e-commerce holds the key to the future for Carroll’s Irish Gifts, says managing director Peter Hyland.

In a way Carroll’s Irish Gifts are synonymous with the Dublin of the past 40 years with landmark stores a key draw for tourists. And if managing director Peter Hyland has its way it will be for another 40 years too through a careful balance of serving traditional customers but also through selling high-end Irish craft goods to discerning domestic customers. The lynchpin of the strategy: digital commerce.

A fully Irish-owned company formed in 1982, Carroll’s Irish Gifts had grown to employ 350 people across 18 stores.

“We had a long-term vision to move the dial from a domestic point of view and bring in more Irish-branded gifts from Irish manufacturers”

In February last year Hyland and his team began to notice a significant fall-off in footfall on Dublin streets as concern grew about the Covid-19pandemic. “On St Patrick’s week the business made the decision to close, and that would traditionally have been our biggest week of the year. It turned out to be the worst year in our 38-year history because we had to lay off 350 people. And that was an extremely tough decision because we are a family business. And many of those people would have been with us for 15 or 20 years or more. It was really tough.”

With lockdowns still ongoing, that tourist customer base has not returned.

Making a long-term strategy more immediate

Faced with stark decisions and a dark economic outlook, Hyland said a strategy that was already in flow to make the company’s product offering more high-end by focusing on Irish craft brands and utilising digital commerce picked up pace.

“I asked the team, how much passion can we put into this strategy? We’ve done this before. The business had to do a number of iterations of strategy and it has a history of innovation, it’s in our DNA”

“The management team met in June and we had three choices: remain closed; reopen but with a view that people who travel will have a different risk appetite; or push on with a strategy that we had already formed, but turn it from a long-term strategy into a short-term strategy.”

That strategy was to move the dial from cheerful tourist products to high-end, high-quality products made by Irish craft producers that would appeal to a discerning domestic market.

“There was nothing wrong with our existing business model. That model was very successful in terms of concentrating on tourists. But could we also create a range internally that would appeal to mums and dads and gift buyers in Ireland. We had a long-term vision to move the dial from a domestic point of view and bring in more Irish-branded gifts from Irish manufacturers. As well as catering for gift buyers domestically we would also be catering for tourists who are looking for something more unique and that has more of a heritage, design and story rather than generic gifts.

“So in June I asked the team, how much passion can we put into this strategy? We’ve done this before. The business had to do a number of iterations of strategy and it has a history of innovation, it’s in our DNA.

“So we focused on higher end offerings that would appeal to a domestic market such as Amy Huberman from Newbridge, Tipperary Crystal, chopping boards, perfumes, clothing, things that were made in Ireland.”

A platform for boosting Irish craft goods

Crucially, the new reinvigorated Carroll’s Irish Gifts was very much part of the shop local, #BuyIrish sentiment that began to gain momentum late last year ahead of the Christmas shopping season.

“It was about striking a balance and we were conscious about doing this very well. Our market research told us that there was a perception that if you buy Irish or local it could be more expensive. And we said among ourselves that doesn’t have to be the case. There was also an opportunity to get behind Irish entrepreneurs and give them a platform to have their products discovered.

“One example is Herb Dublin, a business led by Rachel McCann that makes beautiful candles, bathing products and oils. We got behind her business a couple of years ago. And definitely, supporting young, emerging talent in Ireland is part of our strategy.”

Other areas of focus included creating hampers that promoted Irish artisan foods and drinks including cheeses, breads, teas and more, which Hyland said sold brilliantly online in the run-up to Christmas.

While O’Carroll’s Irish Gifts’ stores are closed today, Hyland is confident they will reopen. But in the meantime, digital commerce is at the heart of the much accelerated strategy to keep the business operational.

“When I joined the business in 2018, the founder and chairman of Carroll’s Irish Gifts, Colm Carroll, set a number of objectives for me. One was to change the perception of the business. The second was to take a digital-first approach to the business. And that was already in play in terms of a new platform we built using the Salesforce Commerce Cloud, which is also used by brands like Brown Thomas, Adidas and Boohoo, to name a few.

“We were satisfied we had a kind of a Rolls-Royce engine to build on for the future. We then layered on top of the new site our new ranges.

“We traditionally had a good online business and our fourth quarter last year was very strong with sales of knitwear and jewellery to north America.

“Our biggest customer online today is an Irish customer. I am genuinely proud of what has happened because what the team has done in a short period of time is incredible. We’ve become a real platform for Irish craft. We’ve probably grown our base of domestic Irish customers by 700pc to 800pc year-on-year.”

Hyland says the future of O’Carroll’s Irish Gifts is omnichannel, with digital commerce and bricks and mortar working seamlessly together.

“We have gotten great support from our landlords and our banks. When we reopened back in June we were already down 85pc year-on-year and the business couldn’t sustain that. So we had to pivot, we had to change. And our team is fully committed to this journey, growing our presence in the domestic market whilst maintaining our presence overseas. Online is significantly and definitely keeping us going.

“At the same time, while focus on Irish crafts for the domestic market, we don’t want to move too far away from our traditional brand. It’s all about striking a balance and being a bright new home for Irish crafts.”

Video: How to get your business selling online

With Christmas 2020 now past, the year ahead 2021 still presents retailers with a challenge to go online to not only deal with closed premises if they are deemed non-essential but to address the expectations of an increasingly digitalised consumer.

To get the message out to SMEs, Bank of Ireland collaborated with online shopping platform Shopify as well as Pointy, the Irish platform recently acquired by Google that helps shoppers find via the internet the products they need in your physical store, and the E-commerce Association of Ireland (eCAI), to highlight the opportunities that exist online.

 

Main image at top: director of Eau Lovely Rachel McCann and managing director of Carroll’s Irish Gifts Peter Hyland.

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 5 February 2021

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