'It's just about surviving as opposed to thriving'

Gym+Coffee is engaging with its online community to get through the Covid-19 crisis

By Zuzia Whelan Reporter, Fora

IRISH ATHLEISURE COMPANY Gym+Coffee has had its eye on the coronavirus outbreak since early January. 

“This has been going on for us for a good while now because we have a number of manufacturers in Asia,” Diarmuid McSweeney, the company’s co-founder, said. 

The company – which was founded by McSweeney, Niall Horgan and Karl Swain in 2017 – has closed its four outlets and moved its sales back online. 

“We were lucky that through December we had a lot of stock on order. Otherwise, we’d be running out of stock now,” McSweeney said. “We were always future planning and figuring out what we were going to do, but we had a bit of an early warning on this. I don’t think anyone ever thought it would really get to this stage.”

Experiential shopping

The company’s Liffey Valley pop-up was partway through a 32-event schedule of live events in-store, per the brand’s experiential shopping feature. 

“It was very much about bringing people in for exercise classes, talks or coffee mornings,” McSweeney said. “That quickly started to fade away as it (Covid-19) affected all different parts of society. We saw the numbers starting to dwindle generally in the different shopping centres.”

“Two weeks ago we decided to close all the stores, that was a very, very difficult decision, ahead of any government initiatives. It was getting hard for our staff and customers to come in. I don’t think people felt that comfortable. It was the right thing to do.”

The now postponed opening of the Blanchardstown Centre store, which was due to take place this week, was a long time in the works and would have been the company’s biggest outlet. 

“It’s still all good work in the bank, it still had to be done, but it was only about three and a half weeks ago that we were there meeting the management team, the fit-out team, and we were all systems go.”

Everything has been put on hold for now, and he added that in a few months, the company hopes the opening will be bigger and better than it would have been. 

The last few weeks have been tough, McSweeney said, because the stores are essential to the company’s branding. 

“They’re not just stores, they’re really community hubs, with a lot of events, activities and classes,” he said. “To have to break the news to the team that we’d be closing for a couple of months, that was a very hard thing to do.”

Back to our roots

In trying to find the positives in a tough spot, McSweeney sees the move online as going back to how the company started, having operated solely online for 18 months until it opened its first pop-up. 

“It’s going back to our roots in a way and just trying to keep the business going that way. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to focus our efforts and marketing on directing people to the online store, and there’s been really good feedback,” he said.

“I don’t think you can really just go quiet for a couple of months,” he added. 

That feedback has been coming from customers who are stuck at home and want to keep themselves busy, so the company has been interacting with its community with recommendations for workouts, meditation apps and language learning. 

As a result, Gym+Coffee launched its ‘Make Life Richer’ hub on Facebook for the month of April, and according to McSweeney, it has garnered strong engagement. 

“We focus the brand so much around a community and physical events, but we can’t do that at the moment. We believe a community is a social unit and not just a gathering, and that’s really come to the fore now,” he said. 

Surviving, not thriving

The company has brought in social distancing and process protocols in its warehouses to enable teams to keep shipping products out. 

For now, according to McSweeney, there hasn’t been a significant financial hit to the business, but the main issue has been with stock-flow and logistics – i.e. shipping goods globally. Like most businesses, he added, they likely won’t see the effects until this month or May, when things have developed more. 

“It will be very hard for some people. It’s just about surviving as opposed to thriving,” he said. 

“It’s more about managing cash flow and taking advantage of any of the supports that are being announced, and keeping on top of them,” he added. 

“You would like to think we’ll get through the worst of it in the next couple of months. If a recession hits, the recession hits, but at least you can manage the business with a bit more ‘known factors’. I think it’s the unknowns that are scaring people,” McSweeney said. 

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