One of the unique things about Ireland is our enormous diaspora relative to the size of our country. The Irish abroad retain a strong national identity, even after several generations.
One Irish company, Blarney Stone Enterprises (www.blarney-stone.com) has tapped into this market and created a successful online retailing business centred on all things Irish. The company was set up in 1987 by husband and wife team, Declan (pictured) and Camilla Fearon, producing gift ideas manufactured from Blarney Stone. Since 1994, it has focused on the design, manufacture, distribution and export of Irish-themed, collectable figurines, each piece carrying a genuine piece of Blarney stone and having a Luck of the Irish coin attached. These include the Finnians, a range of forest dwelling creatures; Telltale Teapots comprising a whole village of teapot characters; and a humorous collection of golfers known as the Masters, amongst others. The company carries a product range of some 1,400 items at any one time.
We have heard a lot about online retailing over the past few years – from being predicted as a licence to print money to the great collapse. As one of the survivors, Declan Fearon has plenty to say on the subject. Laughing, he suggests that one of the main reasons for their success was that they ‘didn’t have the money to waste’.
Having a real world base to build from is highly important, he believes. “The cost of getting a customer on a website is enormous. The conversion rate to customers is 20pc – meaning you will only be able to get one in five of your existing customers to deal with you online. This makes the cost of marketing enormous,” he said.
He freely admits that the online venture would never have worked had the company not had an existing customer base. Blarney Stone developed a collector’s club, which regularly mailed customers with news of new products. The by-product of this was a greater interaction with the company’s customers and the opportunity to point them in the direction of the website.
A glance at the company’s website will also give some clue to its success. Prices are by default in dollars and Fearon admits that the US is one the company’s main markets. He is keen to stress that the site works as a complement rather than competition to his international chain of retailers. The site allows people in remote areas to purchase from the company directly. Stores, meanwhile, are not ignored and Fearon regularly makes personal appearances in order to meet his customers and form a better relationship with them.
The sense of community that the site offers is also of huge importance to the business, Fearon says. It allows people to interact with the company and also with other collectors. Aside from new product announcements, the site’s message boards allow collectors to exchange information and track down discontinued items.
Saving on costs was also an important element of Blarney Stone Enterprises. Fearon cites customer service as an example. The ‘call me now’ feature of his site allows customers to input their phone number and ask to be phoned in five minutes. After we filled out the form, we could hear the familiar sound of an incoming text message. Our request was going directly to his mobile phone. Fearon himself handles all such calls at all hours of the day or night. While it is a small inconvenience for him, he says that it would cost him €15 to €25 an hour to have a call centre handle the calls.
Blarney Stone’s success has led the company into other arenas. In an August 2001 diversification, the company started to offer a select range of Irish goods from other local suppliers from a new site, Buyfromireland (www.buyfromireland.com). The idea was to sell a range of goods from small Irish companies who would, taken by themselves, be unable to have a significant online presence. In both conception and design the site acts as a virtual department store. Although the line up of suppliers differs on a seasonal basis, around 60 to 70 companies are usually represented on Buyfromireland.com.
Blarney Stone employs over 30 people and 15pc of the company’s profits comes from the internet. However, Fearon is by no means an e-commerce evangelist. The success he has had has been hard won. He stresses that the existing customer base and supplier chain are just as crucial to the growth of his business as an online presence. With his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to the web, he concludes: “The internet is a great tool if you use it prudently.”
By Dick O’Brien