Treacy’s Homevalue has been a landmark location in the picturesque town of Thomastown, Kilkenny, for decades. Managing Director Anne Treacy and her son, General Manager Cathal, spoke to The Hardware Journal about the growth of the family business over almost 30 years, the importance of customer service and what the future holds.
The Treacys established the business in Thomastown in the late 80s. Anne recalls: “We had no background in retail but Tom, my husband, was a building contractor and, for a long time, he had thought about setting up a hardware business himself. He saw an opportunity to set up the business in 1989, on a small scale at first.
“We rented the old mart premises in the town and the business was based there for about three years. In 1991, we acquired a greenfield site and have been located there ever since. The premises was built in in 1992 and, at that time, the store was about 700 square metres in area with a yard of approximately 3,800 square metres. This was a major expansion from the original premises (which was redeveloped as the local Garda station) and allowed us to take the business to a new level.” The store developed steadily and in 2002, the Treacys built a further 500 square metre extension. Business was booming and continued to do so until 2007. It was during those years that Anne, a primary schoolteacher, joined the business, initially on a parttime basis. It wasn’t long until it became a full-time occupation: “A few years after I decided to commit fully to merchanting, the downturn came along and it certainly ensured that I learned a lot about cost management and adapting to change.”
Teaching is not a typical background for a builders merchant. What was it that attracted Anne to the sector? “I enjoy meeting many different people all the time and the constant challenges. It’s never boring. You always have to be on your toes, there is no room for complacency. There’s a strong social aspect to the business as well, which is important to me. I like to meet customers and the local people are a very important part of our business. We’re also part of Homevalue and the United Hardware group and, of course, HAI so there’s a wider national network there too, which is very supportive and encouraging.”
Growth in DIY business
The customer mix at Treacy’s has been evolving with the DIYer/ home improver close to 40% of the store’s overall business. Treacy’s, as a business, has put a lot of focused effort into attracting the DIYer demographic. The recent re-design of the store entrance and a transformation of the in-store layout, initiated with the guidance and advice of Homevalue’s design experts, has been a major driver of customer traffic in the past year, Anne says. “The redesign was specifically aimed at increasing our appeal to the DIYer/householder, brightening up the store, making the layout more effective and highlighting the Homevalue logo. It has made a big impact with our customers. Many of them have commented on the ‘extra’ space and complimented us on the expansion. In reality, the new design and layout has not added any extra space; it uses the existing area more effectively and gives the impression of a bigger scale.
The new entrance also helps catch the eye from the road outside, Anne says. “This was a new departure for us and it is getting us noticed much more by casual passers-by. Inside, the new layout opens up the store’s different departments to customers and encourages them to browse around.”
Trade customer remains crucial
The trade and construction customers have been the traditional core of Treacy’s business and continue to constitute a solid foundation for the store’s success. “This sector is advancing all the time. We are seeing constant innovation in products and our trade customers are changing as they keep pace with new development in materials and technologies. The customers today are looking for different materials than they did even a few years ago. As the manufacturers introduce new products, we’re constantly monitoring these trends to see what’s relevant to our locality and our customers, and where appropriate, we adapt our mix of stock.”
Housebuilding in the region is still dominated by one-off developments and, Anne says, is also curtailed by the difficulty in obtaining finance. “Even a slight easing of mortgage availability would have a significant positive impact on housebuilding.”
Large construction projects are thin on the ground locally, reflecting the wider national picture. However, one major water project has recently commenced in the local catchment area. “A long-awaited upgrade to the Inistioge water supply is well under way. A €10 million upgrade of the water supply system, it’s good news for the area and we hope to see a knock-on effect for our business. When a large-scale project comes along we do see a spin-off in the store. It tends to give local tradespeople employment, which is where we get a benefit rather than directly from a project itself.”
Home maintenance is a standout sector at the moment. Cathal explains: “We have put a lot of effort into promoting sales in our plumbing, insulation and decoration product ranges in the last few years and it’s paid off, these are now among the strongest performing areas of our business. It helps that there’s a strong community of plumbers in the catchment area who have been loyal customers for many years.”
Cathal believes home maintenance and improvement will continue to perform strongly in the next few years: “Demand should remain fairly consistent in plumbing. Even in uncertain times, if a pipe bursts, it has to be fixed. With plumbing, small jobs can often be more valuable than a low-margin, larger-scale repair. It can often be a lot more profitable to supply a number of fittings rather than one boiler. Home decorating is also a reliable contributor to turnover. Those sectors tend to be more stable. Building has always been cyclical and, in the future, it could be more volatile than it used to be.”
However, while demand from the contractor/trade purchaser is robust, it’s never been more important to be competitive from a cost perspective: “The trade customer is extremely price-conscious, much more so than the DIY householder.
Online vs bricks-and-mortar
Looking ahead, Cathal is currently working on developing the store’s website: “It will be click and collect to start with but we want to develop it into a full e-commerce website. It’s going to be interesting to see where the online market goes. We don’t want to join it too late.” The biggest challenge ahead, as far as Anne is concerned is technology: “It’s a constant focus, keeping pace with it, judging how much to invest in it, striking a balance to avoid underinvesting or overinvesting.”
While developing the digital side of the business, Anne and Cathal are also conscious of ensuring that their bricks-and-mortar business retains its appeal in the digital age. Cathal notes: “The ‘customer experience’, the enjoyment and service that the customer gets when visiting a physical premises, is more important than ever in an era when there’s so much online competition. And a friendly store and helpful staff are the bedrock of a good customer experience.”
Anne and Cathal are proud of the experienced and tightly-knit team of 10 who work in Treacy’s. Anne explains: “Our employees, who are all from in or around Thomastown, know everyone who drops in, they make a point of always talking to the customer, and feedback tells us that people appreciate the personal service they get in our store.”
UK STUDY TOUR
Cathal Treacy was a participant in HAI’s recent tour of UK Stores: “It was very interesting to see what’s working over there, to see what Screwfix and similar companies are doing and get an idea of where online is heading, the development of click and collect and so on.
“In certain aspects of the business, they may be a little further down the road than the industry here and it’s useful to see what we can learn from them and what’s applicable to us. Obviously, they operate to a different scale due to the size of the UK and the population. A store there might only need to stock two or three items in some categories and they have a truck delivery service every night to replenish the range. Whereas here we would need to stock at least 20 units of a particular item to ensure that the product is always available off the shelf. It was interesting to see that having the capability to hold a low level of stock reduced the need for large space.”
AN ARCHITECTURAL EYE
The second youngest of the four Treacy children, Cathal has always had an interest in construction. He studied architectural technology and after college took some time out to travel, eventually reaching New Zealand. While there, he worked in an engineering office as part of the New Zealand government’s Earthquake Commission, working on rebuilding programmes. Having spent five years in New Zealand he returned to Ireland in 2015 and decided to put his experience to use in the family business.
Just before Halloween the Treacy’s store opened its Christmas shop which includes trees, decorations and outdoor and indoor lights. Anne comments: “It’s something we’ve done for many years and it’s always a popular aspect of the store.”