How one Irish retailer is managing to carry on through the crisis.

Three Business Customer
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On: 22 Apr 2020
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Thomas Horkan

The Horkan family has 100 years’ experience in retail but has never seen anything like the current crisis. Thomas Horkan, one of three bothers currently running the business, explains how the company stepped up to the challenge of taking care of employees and keeping the lights on in its pet stores and garden centres.

I always believe that it’s not what happens to you in life that’s important, it’s how you deal with it. That’s the philosophy of our business too, one that has really been put to test by coronavirus and a level of upheaval that I’ve never seen before. But change is constant in retail, and I take great inspiration from how my relatives, in the past sometimes struggled, yet always managed to find a way forward.

The Horkan family has been in retail for around 100 years, starting with an ice-cream parlour in Castlebar, expanding into corner shops and groceries, and evolving through three generations to where we are today with four Garden & Lifestyle Centres, eight Petworld stores, two Pet Food Depots and three online stores.

Like everybody in the country, we’ve been through a rollercoaster over the past few weeks, living from day to day, doing our best to keep our 150 employees safe and the business up and running. Fortunately, decisions made two or three years ago have helped us in ways that we could never have imagined at the time.

An easier transition to home working.

We moved a lot of our business functions to the Odoo cloud platform which provides end-to-end processes for companies like ours, spanning everything from in-store tils to sending out invoices. It took a lot of time and effort to get it working for us but it’s really making a difference now. We also use Google Drive and 3Connect, a cloud solution for communications in all our stores and offices. Both have proved invaluable in the current crisis, enabling nearly everyone to work from home.

3Connect has been really valuable for the business and me personally. When the lockdown began, I was able to take my phone off my desk in the office, bring it home, plug it in the router, and it’s business as usual – the number comes with me. That’s the same for a lot of the staff now working in their homes.

Right across the company, video conferencing is helping us keep in touch and stay connected. Twice a week, we do face-to-face calls with up to 22 people at a time, where everyone gets the opportunity give an update of what they’re up to. This is vital for us at the moment.

We use conference calls and video throughout the business, whether it’s our media team discussing different social media campaigns or HR checking in with people to make sure they don’t feel isolated. It’s made a huge difference and feels like we’re all in the one room even though we’re in different parts of the country. It’s been a super tool for us and perfect for current circumstances.

A family business with a commitment to community.

Keeping a sense of community is also very important to us. We are a family-based business and think of our employees as another 150 families that depend on us. In these extraordinary times, it’s only natural that people are worried and it’s up to us to support and reassure them. We are in this for the long haul and committed to looking after everyone who works for us.

When the garden centres had to close, we moved that part of the business completely online. The Castlebar outlet has since become our warehouse facility with a small team adhering to the highest standards of social distancing and cleanliness as they take care of customer orders. We have been selling from our websites for the last five years and had a reasonable turnover, but now orders have increased substantially.  

Online activity has become a big part of our business, and not just selling. We are very active on social media, interacting with customers over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, channels that have become much more important with self-isolation. My son is another room in our house right now, using Google AdWords to promote our online presence and connect with customers.

Because pet food shops are a designated essential service, our Petworld stores and Pet Depots are still open seven days a week, albeit with reduced opening hours of 11-5pm. To keep customers safe when they come through our doors, we have signage everywhere to reinforce two-metre social distancing and there are safety screens around all payment points. There is also the option of buying pet food and products online through our websites.

Pets and gardens valued in the crisis.

We are very lucky that our two areas of business seem to be valued more than ever in the current crisis. Gardens are a great space to safely escape the confines of the house, while pets provide some much-needed company for many people self-isolating, and dogs, as always, are great companions when we take our exercise.

Along with investments in cloud IT services, the decision to develop our businesses online has made it possible for us to keep going. I have no doubt that when this is all over, eCommerce will become even more important because people who hadn’t previously shopped online will be much more comfortable with the experience and do more of it. Retailers should be in no doubt that it’s the future. 

That said, there’s nothing like face-to-face contact with our valued customers, and direct interaction with other businesses in the community.

If you would like to learn more about the Horkan family businesses, please visit www.horkans.ie

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