From the early days of Patrick and Carmel Keogh selling potatoes from a large shed, Rathwood has become a destination centre that offers a truly amazing visitor experience.
Located in Rath, Tullow, Co Carlow, Rathwood is an award-winning family-run department store with a difference.
I met with James Keogh, the son of Patrick and Carmel, at the Merry Tree restaurant.
We started our discussions by asking how Rathwood became a client of Lalor O’Shea McQuillan Chartered Accountants.
“Basically we outgrew our old accountants and we needed audit services. Lalor O’Shea McQuillan was the right fit for our business. Coming from banking myself I was used to working with the big four accountancy firms and the level of professionalism they brought to the table was very good.”
James and his brother Thomas took over the management of Rathwood about six years ago. “The recession meant that there was a considerable need for realignment. “At that time we were primarily retailers with a garden centre, gifts, furniture and a restaurant. In the recession that model just wasn’t sustainable. Geographically we weren’t very strong and the bigger multiples had more buying power”, James explained.
Despite the recession they had a good product concept with the Santa Train, with annual ticket sales of approximately 4,000 tickets at the time. The Santa Train fitted the customer need – it was a guaranteed seasonal spend but James wanted to add value to it whilst retaining a price point that was affordable for parents.
The Santa Train event gave their young customers and parents a great experience and made good use of the assets at Rathwood – plenty of space, woodlands and walks.
Six years later the events part of the business has grown massively. Selling approximately 110,000 tickets for their key events such as the Santa Train, Easter Eggsperience, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Daddy Bear’s Picnic, Pumpkin Train and Fossett’s Circus.
These events have created a new demand for their retail offerings. So much so that last year they added a new restaurant and outdoor play area to meet the needs of their key customer segment; children between the age of 2 and 7 and their parents.
98% of all ticket sales for Rathwood events are made online. Their events are all pre-planned, pre-organised and pre-sold, and this puts Rathwood in the driving seat.
James explained “Thomas drives the tech side of the business. He developed the online ticketing software and also drives the online retail business”. James manages the day-to-day running of the business and is the driving force behind the regrowth of their retail and events business.
Within their retail offering, their own brand of garden furniture is making a strong impact nationally. Working with small, independent businesses Rathwood develops strong relationships with other retail outlets. “We have gallery stores for our furniture in multiple locations throughout Ireland including Dublin, Cork, Bray and Galway” said James.
Many retailers despair that customers only visit their premises to look and leave – failing to make a purchase. James recognised this trend and leveraged this all too common pain-point.
“Furniture is a considered purchase, so our plan has been to bring the furniture to our customers. They can physically touch it, look at it and think about it – before they order it online. This greatly reduces returns because people experience the quality first-hand – even though the purchase they are making is online.
“Our strategy isn’t a hard sell” continued James. “In fact it’s a win-win for ourselves, our customers and for our gallery stores. We have found it easy to develop relationships with other business owners because they experience the same problems we do, whether it’s staffing, human resources, buying power or competition.
In many ways our partnerships help to share the burden and puts us all on a stronger footing. We make ourselves more competitive by taking the same approach the multi-nationals do and it works for us and for our gallery stores.
For example, we have a new retailer who showcases our garden furniture line. He now has a product that is very competitive online and is also highly competitive in his local area. This gives him the opportunity to become the biggest seller in that area.
With Brexit looming I asked James how are they managing the uncertainty, “we have built a large central distribution centre here in Tullow. Up until recently we had a warehouse in Liverpool to facilitate the UK market, but we have temporarily pulled everything back because of Brexit”. Everything James does show that small businesses can make a big impact when they work together.
Rathwood hasn’t just survived the recession, they have managed to thrive in an everchanging economic landscape. So I asked James what advice would you give to other business owners and clients at Lalor O’Shea McQuillan?
“Take a good hard look at your product. Ask yourself, how genuinely competitive are you? I know this is a tough question to ask but answer it honestly. Creating a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace requires a unique and individual frame.”
James continued, “the retail offering is diminishing for most retailers but the service product offering is increasing. Service Products are things that can’t be competed with online. For example, a beautician, play centre, food experience or in our case events. What we offer online at Rathwood is very specific and this has helped us stay very competitive with our service product.”
I ended my visit to Rathwood with lunch in the Merry Tree Restaurant. The food was delicious. Dishes and desserts are built around organic and locally produced ingredients and it’s evident in the taste. To top it off, they have their own organic Rathwood wine. It is sourced directly from a community of passionate young winemakers in the foothills of the Languedoc region of France and shipped to Tullow at the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.
Lunch is best followed by a long walk through the gardens and if you have time, get lost in the Maze of Ireland. The Rathwood experience is built on delight and surprise and I’m certain their business model will continue to disrupt and delight the retail space with their events and service-based model.
Rathwood is located in Rath, Tullow, Co Carlow, R93 X3F9
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 9am to 6pm
Call: 059 9156285
Sincere thanks to James Keogh for participating in our Audit Services Client Feature.