When Emer Purcell started packaging local artisan products in the West Cork pub she was running, little did she know it would turn into a hugely successful business. We sat down with the owner of Hampers & Co to talk about start ups, success and surviving through the recession.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how Hampers & Co began?
I had not always planned on selling hampers. I initially began my career in the 1980s as a racehorse trainer and was, at one point, leading female racehorse trainer in Ireland. It wasn’t a “huge achievement because there were only three or four female trainers at the time”. When my mother told me I was beginning to “walk like a horse” and feeling that I needed a change of pace in life, I decided to review my future and settled on studying equine acupuncture in 1990. For three years, I studied the subject while spending a year abroad in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai where I also learned how to speak some Mandarin Chinese. I returned to Ireland and began to put my equine acupuncture into practice but was not content with just that one interest I also got involved in a pub in the village of Schull, West Cork.
I was always interested in food & cooking & I started to do simple home cooked lunches in the Pub & quickly build a loyal clientele. It was while working at the pub in Schull that the hamper business began. Although the summer months were fantastic for the pub, the winter months were that bit more challenging and in order to keep busy, I painted the pub dresser and gathered the local salmon, cheeses & artisan food products , combined them with wine presented them in baskets and began selling them from the pub. The hampers on the dresser of the pub quickly became popular, especially among holiday makers and business people staying in the village. The business began to really take off when a UK based business man and holiday maker told me he bought all his Hampers in Harrods but wanted to order 300 of mine, to be delivered to him within a week to London. I worked tirelessly, making jam and acquiring food and products for the hampers, to ensure that the 300 hamper delivery was reached within the tight time frame. I hired a van, recruited a local fisherman & sent him to London with a van of Hampers a week later. I was successful in reaching my target and from then onwards the business continued to grow. The business sort of followed me around & the phone would start ringing in October requesting hampers which I would work on while also running my equine acupuncture business. In 1993,I decided that I needed to choose between one business or the other and focused all my energies into the Hamper business.
What were your initial challenges during the start up period?
I do admit to undertaking very little market research when starting out in the business. I describe myself as a woman who puts “the cart before the horse”, as the business grew, I began learning on the job. This included learning how to arrange shipping orders for the baskets and packaging which I design & import from Asia, and making large scale deliveries,
despite having no previous experience. One of my first big jobs was delivering hampers to Anglo-Irish Bank which I delivered out of the back of a horsebox. In those days nobody was above coming out on the street & carrying the Hampers in the front door. I credit hard work, the enthusiasm & fearlessness of youth and the plentiful energy I have been blessed with for helping expand the business. I probably never would have started the business if I sat down and took note of everything that needed to be done. Additionally, good timing was a factor as I began the business in 1993, when the Celtic Tiger was in its origin state. The business continued to grow and I had established strong connections with corporations but like nearly every other business, I was affected in 2008 when the recession struck.
How, if at all, has the recent downturn in the economy affected the business? Is the business benefiting from the current perceived improvement in market conditions?
In 2007 we sold approximately 20,000 hampers in November & December, I had a warehouse full of stock in October 2008 and then January 2009 came and I still had a warehouse full of stock,. Back in the days of the Celtic Tiger, it was highly unlikely to receive a single-order basket or to operate from the website. The vast majority of the business was with big business corporations. That has since changed in the last five years. In order to ensure the business’s survival in 2009, I knew I would need to change my business practices. I had to get moving really quickly and I had to find a way of getting rid of my stock. So I loaded up my van like Dell Boy and I hit the road and went to all the shows and fairs. Every weekend, we were at a show somewhere. We were like the Travelling Hillbillies family. But you know, it really worked in the end because I went from having 5% of my business online to a big leap of 70% of my business happening online. I now put a lot of effort into my online business because that’s how it’s going nowadays & am delighted to belaunching my new website on Thursday 4th September 14. However I also produce a full hard copy brochure every year to showcase my New Christmas Selection as the corporate market is reviving & responds well to a printed brochure.
What is the culture within your company? How important has your team been to the development of the business?
My team is what keeps me going. When I feel exhausted & lacking creativity its my team that helps me get my mojo back. Many of my part time staff has been with me for over 15 years & two since the get go 21 years ago. I have learnt over the years that the team are a vital source of information & inspiration. We have regular meetings were everyone is allowed moan, groan, make suggestions & get involved. My small boutique wine supplier’s visit & we have fun with the wine tasting plus we collectively enjoy days where the wonderful Irish Artisan foods are tasted & selected. It keeps the passion alive & helps everyone take responsibility for the running of the business.
What 3 pieces of advice, from your experience, would you like to share with others in business or intending to start a new business?
1. Always keep working on relationships & meet your clients when possible
2. Don’t ask your friends for advice on your business they will only tell you what you want to hear.
3. Don’t give up the day job for self employment because you are looking for an easier life. Be prepared to give it 24×7 , including Christmas Day, Bank Holidays & Holy Days of obligation !
What’s next for Hampers & Co?
I am confident that with my twenty one years of determination and innovation; a couple of busy months ahead; and our newly appreciated, active online presence; the future is indeed looking bright for Hampers & Co.This Christmas we have been invited into the iconic Clery’s Department Store where will we have all our Hampers & Gourmet Gift Boxes on offer & we will be offering a worldwide delivery service.
With over 350 gifts and hampers on their website, Hampers & Co is the answer to all your gifting ideas. To find out more, log onto www.hampersandco.com.