“When a company truly cares for their employees, success will follow” – CEO Q&A with Peter Hyland of Carroll’s Irish Gifts

By Business & Finance
23 November 2022
Pictured: Peter Hyland, CEO of Carroll’s Irish Gifts

Peter Hyland is the CEO of Carroll’s Irish Gifts. The souvenir and gift shop was established in 1982 and has locations across Ireland. 

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

We are coming out of COVID with a new vision, mission and values. This is giving the business renewed energy and motivation.  

My top 5 priorities 

  1. I am lucky to lead a very talented and hardworking team. My main priorities are to protect and develop the culture of the organisation and ensure our strong values are on show from all colleagues every day! 
  2. Retail expansion – we have brought our store count to 19 with the addition of 3 new stores in the last 12 months. 
  3. Gearing up for growth – we are moving our support office to a 40,000 sq ft warehouse and office facility in Fonthill in December. 
  4. We are on a digital transformation journey with the introduction of Wave OMS (Order Management System), an SAAS solution for streamlining our eCommerce Pick Pack & Ship processes. Another example is Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central which will go live in early 2023. This new unified system will allow the business to gather real time customer insights, ensure effective stock management controls and put data at the heart of our strategy. 
  5. Evolving the brand

We undertook a considerable piece of customer research. This showed that the brand had significant awareness/recall but dropped when it came to purchase consideration. The domestic customer represented a small fraction of our business pre-COVID. We redefined what essentially is an Irish Gift internally and set out to enhance the store experience and range to appeal to a greater audience. 

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

There are plenty of challenges. I think my biggest as we head into 2023 would be inflation and the prospect of a global recession. With no end in sight for the international energy crisis, rising interest rates and supply chain interruptions, we will no doubt begin to see customer spending reducing in the coming year. My role is to ensure the business can withstand these challenges. 

I think my biggest as we head into 2023 would be inflation and the prospect of a global recession.

How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

I think creating an encouraging collaborative approach to our strategy is really important. All departments must buy into the strategy and play a significant role in shaping the future of the organisation. As we transitioned into new ranges, new store formats and targeted a new customer, we felt we were the underdog and we wanted to prove to ourselves that in such adversity like COVID-19 which decimated tourism into Ireland, we could innovate quickly and come out stronger! 

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

I think brick and mortar will continue to rebound well with some pure play online retailers venturing into physical retail.  The physical retail model is always changing. Today, consumers want not only the product but also to enjoy the act of the purchase itself. This means we need to be thinking about in-store experiences. We need to provide a tangible reason to visit. They want to be entertained.  

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Our biggest challenge in 2022 has been attracting talent into the organisation. We need to resist the urge to fill positions but be patient and wait for the right candidate that fits our culture, passion, and drive. 

Many wrongly consider retail as a temporary career move when in fact lots of magnificent permanent opportunities exist in the industry. People who start working in retail straight out of school develop a range of life-skills and can aspire to further education and development.   We have some great examples internally of starting on the shop floor and now hold senior positions in Carroll’s Irish Gifts. 

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

I think the gap is quantum of candidates rather than skills. Unemployment remains at a 20 year low. With this unemployment rate, this will spike employee switching employers more frequently. 

How has Brexit affected you?

Thankfully, we purchase 75% of our goods from Irish suppliers. The balance is split between the UK and Europe. The upside is that we can notice more customers opting to purchase from Irish businesses due to uncertainty of delivery charges and customs charges. 

We have 2 stores trading really well in Northern Ireland.   

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector?

It was an extremely tough time for this business, but we look back on it as being a catalyst for change.  

In 2020, what would usually be a significant week for us as a business being St. Patrick’s week turned out to be one of the most difficult the business faced. We had to put the majority of our 350+ workforce on layoff. That was an extremely tough decision for the business to take.

Our business was predominantly catering to tourists. We noticed COVID having an impact in early February and by mid-March our customers were completely gone and they still haven’t fully returned. In 2019, Ireland welcomed 9.7m overseas tourists and 2022 will likely land on +7.0m

We knew we had to take the cost base down immediately. We had to make extremely difficult decisions like making some of the team redundant. We had to let go of some long-standing, loyal and hard-working team members that had been with Carroll’s for most of their careers. For many of the team, they were losing someone that they had worked with for 20+ years. The majority of the team had grown up together and were more than just colleagues. We then cut all non-essential spending, received fantastic support from our suppliers, banks and some of our landlords to help us reduce our operating cost base and cash management. 

In 2020, what would usually be a significant week for us as a business being St. Patrick’s week turned out to be one of the most difficult the business faced. We had to put the majority of our 350+ workforce on layoff. That was an extremely tough decision for the business to take.

We had 3 options:

  1. We can either close the business and reopen when tourists re-emerge which will be likely mid to late 2021 which was the case for many tourist attractions and tourism retail stores. 
  2. We do nothing and hope COVID dissipates or we take responsibility for our future, we innovate and change quickly to adapt to the new retail environment 
  3. The team overwhelmingly made the brave bold step to stay open and tackle this new environment head on like the business has done in the past. Carroll’s has a history of evolving as it started in 1982 as Bargain King selling toys, changed to Carroll’s of Dublin which was a newsagent and then pivoted again to Carroll’s Irish gifts focusing on the influx of tourists coming into Ireland.  

We knew we had to work on the brand. The brand scored very high for brand awareness but less so when it came to consideration. Everyone knows Carroll’s but for some reason wouldn’t consider us as a place to purchase a gift particularly for the Irish audience. 

We needed to really showcase our suppliers.  In 2019, 75% of all our stock purchases was with local Irish companies, many of whom we have been trading with for 30+ years. We already had ranges from many Irish brands like Newbridge, Guinness, Baileys, Butlers.  

We developed a new range that will play across a domestic customer but remain true to our position. We wanted Irish ranges that would appeal to a domestic market but would also have a role to play when tourism returns. We have brought in ranges from Newbridge, Foxford, Caulfield Country Boards, Jane Darcy and Herb Dublin. We wanted to genuinely support Irish businesses and in particular start-ups. I truly believe this country has some of the finest talent in the world. We want to give these emerging Irish Start-ups a platform to have their product on the High street across Dublin, Galway, Cork, Kilkenny, Belfast and on a website that sells across the world. 

We stripped back our stores, changed our mechanising disciplines, removed fixtures to make the space bright and an attractive shopping experience. 

And finally, we introduced a new range of hampers. This has been a great line for us. All through the pandemic we have seen many send that taste of Ireland to a friend or a relative that cannot come home. 

I feel we are a leaner business, a better proposition business to face any future headwinds.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Success is not an easy thing to define. Similar to how people grow and mature, the definition of success can and will change. I think success will be to create a positive winning culture. I am confident that when a company truly cares for their employees, works hard to stay current and innovates, success will follow. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

Surround yourself with the best people. Treat them well and give them the autonomy to do great things! 

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Watching the result of our innovation and hard work during lockdown such as the store refit program – new look and feel – our new range additions and our online store growing each year. We are the largest Irish Gifts retailer in Ireland and export to 90+ countries worldwide thru our website 

We have opened 3 new stores in the last 12 months. This is a significant achievement. This shows the strength and resilience of the brand and my brilliant colleagues. 

Surround yourself with the best people. Treat them well and give them the autonomy to do great things! 

What’s next for your company?

We are still focused on building back from COVID. I expect growth on pre-COVID levels in 2023. We are working on a number of very exciting both with the Carroll’s Irish Gifts and our property business. 

Carroll’s focus will be on Irish brands with value at the heart. We have a very wide and diverse range of fabulous Irish products perfect for gifting all year round, from Mother’s/Father’s Day to Christmas. We will move the focus away from Guinness etc, and focus on other brands such as Newbridge, Herb Dublin, Irish sock society, Jane Darcy and Kelly Hood prints 

We don’t just want the elite Irish brands as that’s what everyone else is doing. We want to focus on young Irish businesses and provide a platform for them to sell their products like Irish Sock Society, Jane Darcy, Herb Dublin. I think buying Irish doesn’t have to be more expensive and I want Carroll’s Irish Gifts to be front of mind when they want to buy a gift.  Both domestic customers and tourists have a real grá for quality Irish gifts. 

We get gifting. We get Irish gifting. We have been doing this for 40 years and plan to do it for the next 40!

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

We have set ourselves some aggressive targets.

  1. Our great HR team is working towards external accreditation to be an employer of choice. 
  2. We will open our 20th store in 2023. This store is going to be incredible and will represent all what we have done with the brand over the last 2 years. 
  3. Successful launch of our new Tagline – Gifts with Grá 

Carroll’s is synonymous with Ireland, and Irish gifts. But Carroll’s also understands that gifts are bought with thought and a bit of ‘love’ to them. In our new positioning, we want to communicate how this understanding shapes the whole Carroll’s approach to our business, from how we engage with local suppliers, to how we choose our gift selection, to how we greet people in store and help them choose gifts.

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Pat Phelan of Sisu

Ed Rositer of Phoenix