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30 years and counting

Only Natural has been trading in Wexford for 30 years, and its owner, Gerald Colfer, shows no signs of slowing down. We find out how he’s survived the ups and downs of retailing – and the economy!

Gerald Colfer and his team at Only Natural in Wexford spent this October celebrating 30 years in business. This is no mean feat, and it’s fascinating to hear how Gerald has navigated not just the ups and downs of health store retailing over the last three decades, but also the roller coaster ride that has been the Irish economy in recent years. He puts the store’s success and longevity down to a combination of support from customers and the passion and expertise of the store’s team. ‘We have a big customer base, and a very loyal one,’ Gerald explains.

‘I’ve always been grateful for that, and I don’t take it for granted. Customer service is at the very heart of our business, and that’s what saved us from going under when things were difficult. When you’ve been through as many ups and downs as we have at Only Natural, you become aware that great relationships with customers are the most important thing.’

Early days

The Only Natural story started in the mid-eighties, when Gerald was a recent language graduate, kicking his heels in Wexford and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. His plan had been to go into teaching or translation, but these options were looking less and less appealing, when a friend mentioned that he’d signed up for a Start your Own Business course. Gerald experienced what he describes as a ‘lightbulb moment’, and signed up for the course, too. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by herbalism, the history of medicinal herbs and their uses, and I’ve always grown my own herbs,’ he explains, ‘so it wasn’t a hard decision to go into that kind of business. This was a time when it was easier to start a business without having any real idea of what you were doing. A friend of mine had a friend whose brother was opening a large fruit and veg shop in Wexford, and he invited me to take a corner of his shop and run my health business from there.’

This relationship proved successful, and Gerald continued to retail from the fruit and veg shop for over a decade. ‘I got a lot of footfall just by virtue of being in a successful store. I learned a lot about retailing as I went along, by making mistakes and by pure luck, and the two businesses worked very synergistically.’ One thing that Gerald had in his favour was that he wasn’t the first health store retailer in town; although this of course meant that he had competition, it also meant that he knew there was a market for the kind of products he wanted to sell.

Time to move on

After 12 years of working successfully out of the fruit and veg shop, Gerald’s landlord wanted to expand his own business, so it was time for Only Natural to go it alone. ‘I felt some trepidation,’ says Gerald, ‘but it was the right thing to do. I had more space in my own store, and more control over layout and what I could offer to the customers. This was in the mid-nineties, and our move coincided with the Irish economy beginning to take a turn for the better: the start of the Celtic Tiger era.’

From the start, Gerald had offered a full range, comprising natural foods, supplements, skincare and bodycare, and a certain amount of giftware. Only Natural was positioned in a great spot on the main street in Wexford, and in 2002 Gerald opened a second store, called Only Natural Too. There were certain overlaps in what the stores stocked, but Gerald was able to use the second store to increase his lines. Only Natural Too benefitted from the fact that it is one of the biggest spaces in Irish health store retailing, at 3,000 square feet. Rather than facing the issue of fitting stock into the store, as many retailers have to, Gerald sometimes had to look for ideas for how to fill all the space!

Challenging times

The Irish economy crashed in 2006, and this heralded a very challenging period for Only Natural. ‘Health foods and supplements had been becoming much more mainstream, which meant that the multiples were starting to carry more and more of our lines,’ explains Gerald. When the economy started to become problematic, this just compounded the challenges Gerald was facing. ‘I decided to close the second store,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t ideal; I’d bought the premises for the second store, and still had to pay the mortgage. It lay dormant for three years, then we were finally able to get out of the lease on our main street premises, and could move into the empty store.’ This was a hard choice – although the store that Gerald owned was bigger and had the advantage of parking for customers, the other store had enjoyed a really great location. Luckily, Gerald’s large – and loyal – customer base stuck with him through the tough times, and the business was able to survive, and come out of the other side as a thriving store.

Moving to the future

‘Consumer culture has changed dramatically over the years,’ admits Gerald. ‘Here in Ireland, natural living has never been as trendy as it is now. Young people are showing such an interest in healthy eating, superfoods and protein bars, and are coming into the store in numbers we haven’t seen before.’ This growth in the market for natural products means that although the multiples are continuing to offer many of the lines that Only Natural also stocks, there are enough customers to go round, and Only Natural is going from strength to strength. ‘‘We have an experience and an expertise in these products – not to mention an integrity – that multiples can never match, and we are finding new ways all the time to tell our customers. It’s a real learning curve: we spent a lot of time on our Facebook page only to find the increase in customers was small, but we’re now active on Instagram, and that is working better for us. I am lucky to have young, talented people on my team who know much more about this than I do, and I bow to their superior knowledge!’

Five years ago, to celebrate their 25th birthday, Gerald started a loyalty card scheme, which meant that he could establish a customer database. He has recently started to integrate that with the store’s website, and is doing digital marketing involving sending out a monthly newsletter and special offer sheet.

‘The next move is to open an online store,’ says Gerald. ‘This should be up and running by mid-December, in time for Christmas shopping. I’m approaching it with a certain amount of trepidation; it reminds me of when we first set up our EPOS system, it’s such an enormous amount of work. We have about 4,000 items in our stock base, and getting those on to the website is a daunting task. But we plan to start small and gradually increase what’s available online.’

For Gerald, getting online was a no-brainer. ‘So many people want the convenience of it, and we already offer lots of promotions and special offers. If we can translate even some of these into online sales I think that our customers will be very appreciative of what we have to offer.’

If the success of Only Natural over the last 30 years is anything to go by, the future looks bright!

Gerald's sales and marketing tips

  • ƒƒ Don’t be afraid to try something and decide it’s not for you: Facebook hasn’t worked brilliantly for us, so now we’re trying Instagram instead.
  • Technology can help you get closer to your customers, not further away from them. Our loyalty card scheme is now integrated with our website and it makes it easy for us to communicate with our customers in lots of different ways, including newsletters and special offers.
  • ƒƒ
  • Delegation is key! I don’t know much about social media, and I’m not an expert on technology, by any means. But I want to have a business that survives in the modern world, so I make sure I have staff who know more about these things than I do, then I trust them to get on with it.

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