Galway’s Tiniest and Finest

Following the recent implementation of a comprehensive re-branding strategy, O’Toole’s Tools in Galway’s city centre is running hard to keep pace with the online pack. But as The Hardware Journal found out when it caught up with Ruairi O’Toole, winning the race will not nearly be as straight forward as he would like.

One of the more remarkable things as one drives across Ireland, leaving the capital in the rear-view mirror as Galway’s “City of the Tribes” bursts up out of the Western seam of the Irish countryside’s fabric, is the pendulum swing from a skyline full of cranes to a skyline without a single one. In a city constantly plagued by traffic congestion, regularly inundated with annual tourist tsunamis for events such as the Arts Festival, the Oyster Festival, and of course the Galway Races, urban development and construction are conspicuous by their prolonged absence. A perennial stagnation surrounds plans for a bypass that would ease the aforementioned traffic congestion. The uncertain future of Apple’s planned data centre in nearby Athenry causes further frustration for those both embedded in and dependent on the local economy.

Home to Hardware Store

Nestled in the nucleus of Galway City sits O’Toole’s Tools – arguably the most charmingly presented hardware store in all the country. Back in November 1985, the late Jackie O’Toole sought permission from his beloved wife to convert the downstairs of her family home into a paint shop, with a few hardware bits and bobs for sale too. Having worked for 25 years in the now-defunct Naughtons Hardware in the city, Jackie decided to launch his own endeavour – J. O’Toole & Sons – overseeing operations right up until his retirement a little under six years ago, at 70 years of age. Originally dealing primarily in paint with a smattering of tools on the side, the focus of the business gradually shifted towards hardware, as the paint offerings diminished to near-extinction.

That transition happened as the boom was taking off, with heavier tools finding themselves increasingly in demand. Jackie had previously looked after those areas of Naughtons, so it was a relatively smooth progression for the store. Nevertheless, part of the reason for the paint trade dropping off was the issue of access, with the shop situated on a one-way, semi-pedestrianised street off Eyre Square. The nearby Corrib Shopping Centre provides relief, but points are inevitably lost on practicality with the absence of on-site parking. However, the store still retains a very healthy portion of trade customers, which could be as much as 50% of their overall business, according to Ruairi. In cases of collection, a quick phone call in advance will suffice, and the O’Toole’s team will have the product ready and waiting – a feat achieved through the grace of having 90% of the stock stored on-site. Plans to roll-out a Click-and-Collect service are also underway.

Size Doesn’t Always Matter

Back in 1985, there were four other hardware/DIY merchants competing for custom. Today, only McDonoghs survives, having centralised all operations to where their builders merchants yard is situated, in an industrial estate outside town. No such need to consolidate operations afflicts O’Toole’s, however, who boast an overall floor space of just 80m2. Self-billed as “The Biggest Little Hardware Store in the West”, eldest son and owner Ruairi O’Toole is quick to point out that a small store is just as challenging as a large one (if not more so) when it comes to managing the available space.

“Often, we get asked how we manage to fit so much stuff into the place, but whenever I look at the bigger stores, I’m always asking: ‘how are they so sparse?’” muses Ruairi. That, he admits, is his conditioning from having had to constantly maximise every centimetre of space available since he’s been working in the store, which – for him and his brothers – has been since childhood. With the January sales having just concluded, O’Tooles find themselves in the midst of preparations for the Spring season. Functional seeds for various vegetables are among the key sellers – a surprisingly strong-performing category, as Ruairi himself admits – and the store will undergo a minor change-of layout to refresh the aesthetic for customers.

Staying Afloat

Regular, returning customers are a key element of any store’s survival, and O’Toole’s is no different. Ruairi explains how – with so many contacts built up over time – the store endeavours to keep abreast of any new emerging product ranges. “If anything new comes online, we’ll take an interest in it to see where it’s going,” he confirms. However, when it comes to e-commerce, he laments past experiences of suppliers furnishing incorrect order codes for products bought in, as well as the fact that trying to get images off suppliers is apparently “like pulling hens’ teeth” – just one symptom of a wider lethargy that Ruairi believes is afflicting the industry overall when it comes to online retail. Another principal challenge is the constant pressure to price-match with online sellers.

“What we’ve noticed over the past 18-24 months, and especially at Christmas time, is people coming in claiming to have found one of our products online at a cheaper price, sold by some guy who’s more than happy to make a 5% margin. I mean, we’ll try to match it as best we can but sometimes, it’s just not a realistic possibility,” explains Ruairi. This loss-leader pressure is a major concern for stores like O’Toole’s, making survival harder and harder unless the ability and willingness to adapt and transition is apparent. Shopping online is also convenient, and the delayed works on a bypass is not helping with Galway’s nightmarish traffic – factors that Ruairi understands and accepts, using that acceptance to drive O’Toole’s Tools harder to stay ahead of the game.

Mixing or Stirring? The Social Media Experiment

O’Toole’s Tools take their social media presence very seriously. As Ruairi observes, advertising is progressively straying away from traditional print offerings. “The lads in the van aren’t reading the paper – they’re on their phone,” he states. O’Toole’s avails of a variety of online and social media fora to advertise, with services such as Google AdWords, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all heavily relied upon to reach new customers. The store has more recently been working with a digital marketing manager to put a plan in place for the next 12 months. The main overhaul occurred in the changing of the store’s name, from “J. O’Toole & Sons” to “O’Toole’s Tools”. Ruairi explains how that helped amalgamate with all the other online platforms. A determined colour scheme was adopted around three months ago too, with the iconic pink store front of old replaced with a more professional, smoulderingly energetic blue, which was all part of the re-branding.

At the moment, Facebook remains the principal platform through which the store interacts with its customers, and through their Facebook the store saw a lot of attention build around they’re Testosterone Kits – a provocatively-named range of tool kits launched in the run up to Christmas. The marketing strategy could be considered diplomatically as “rather bold”, with comparisons between it and Yorkie’s now-infamous “It’s Not for Girls” tagline not wholly inaccurate.

“We knew we were on the edge with that campaign,” admits Ruairi, “but we were also in the midst of the re-brand at the same time, so it was something to stand out from the crowd and get the public talking, which they certainly did.” He affirms that most people saw it as light-hearted, and even defers to the fact it was thought-up by a woman as adding to the sense of fun and irony of the situation. “The majority of people liked it, but naturally there were those who didn’t like it,” he explains. “Nobody came into the store to protest, as it was mainly online that the backlash occurred,” he continues. After a long and thorough deliberation among the senior management, it was decided not to become embroiled in an online battle, as that would only add unsavoury fuel to the fire.

However, whether intended to be light-hearted or not, given the ground-breaking data revealed by The Hardware Journal in our previous issue surrounding gender stereotypes in DIY, how does Ruairi and his team consider their female customer base?

“Being in Galway, we have a huge number of female customers coming in on a daily basis. What we pride ourselves on is honesty in advice, irrespective of gender. It genuinely is one of our main USPs. If what they need can be bought for cheaper, sell them the cheaper option, without looking to sell more expensive products if they’re unnecessary. Because of our access issues there’s a need to advise wisely, to ensure the customer gets what they need the first time. This also leads to repeat custom.”

The Men Behind The Magic

Given the level of activity, it’s unsurprising that O’Toole’s Tools are currently recruiting. At present, the staff consists of just two full-time employees and one part-time. They’re looking to hire a third full-time employee after a recent departure. “Ideally, there’d be four full-timers to give us all a break, but we just can’t quite justify a fourth full-time employee yet. Senior manager John Collins has been there for 32 years, with Ruairi himself clocking up 20 years so far. Ruairi’s younger brother John works two days per week to help out but is primarily a mechanic by trade. His skills are regularly called in to action. “Technically we don’t do repairs inhouse, but if it’s something doable, like changing a pair of brushes on a drill, we’ll leave it to John,” chuckles Ruairi.

The retail community spirit is strong in the area, and many of the local stores might pop in asking to borrow something for a minute, with the O’Toole’s team obliging (within reason). The store also has an advertising hoarding up at Eamonn Deacy Park, in support of Galway United.

The Good, The Bad, and the Galway

One of the key benefits for a small store such as O’Toole’s Tools in the heart of Galway City is the sheer variety of customers encountered, according to Ruairi. The eclectic mix of random one-time shoppers marries harmoniously with the solid base of regular customers, and the familiarity and those relationships that are nurtured over time. The shop also boasts a thriving overseas export business (albeit to the Aran Islands and Inishbofin). But that shadow of the online competition still looms large over this little hardware shop. “Individuals with access to profit, willing to make very little margin, with product the source of which we’ll never get to the bottom of!” declares Ruairi. Enterprises like ScrewFix are also posing big challenges too, being as they are extremely well financed and well marketed. Ruairi describes it as silly to try to take such behemoths on, though, as many of the lines they have are exclusive, rendering direct competition redundant. “It makes you think outside the box to draw customers in, by trying to offer them something different; knowledge, experience, refreshing the store layout – it keeps you learning, keeps you improving.”

While the two-tier recovery is being keenly felt this side of the country, Ruairi believes that things are progressing, but at a painfully slow pace. “The media are constantly claiming that everything is good. Everything is not good. It’s slow,” he observes.

With regard to customer or product trends at present, Ruairi can’t point to any one product or range in particular. “Our variety means no one thing jumps out,” he states. As for upcoming developments, he’s playing his cards close to his chest, revealing a few planned meetings in the diary to examine the rest of 2018. “Watch this space!” he advises.