Designer turned hobby into Irish jewellery business
Future Proof : Sabine Lenz, Enibas
Designer Sabine Lenz of Enibas Jewellery pictured at her shop in Schull, West Cork. Photograph: Emma Jervis Photography
In 1990, young fashion design student Sabine Lenz left home in Germany to hitchhike around Europe. Ireland was one of the stops on her itinerary and she ended up in Westport where “a handsome stranger” caught her eye as they passed in the street.
The couple opened their first Enibas shop in Schull in the late 1990s followed by a second outlet in Kinsale in 2006. Enibas now employs 11 people including four craftspeople who make the jewellery in the Schull workshop.
When the recession hit, the Kinsale shop was first to feel the chill. Schull continued to trade well in 2007-08 but a fall of 10 per cent in Kinsale’s turnover and a drop in wholesale sales (as the downturn hit craft and gift shops around the country) set alarm bells ringing.
“We had struggled so much when we first started that I never wanted to go back to that place of hardship,” she says. “At the time, it seemed like the whole country was talking about the recession and I found it quite scary, a sort of economic apocalypse. My kids were still young at the time, 16, 14 and 8, and I knew I had to keep the show on the road. I felt the time had come to prove that I had the determination not just to survive but to thrive.”
The company responded to the downturn in three key ways. It opened up a new sales channel by taking its business online with the creation of enibas.com in 2008.
Lenz designed a new collection to appeal to a wider variety of tastes and priced it competitively.
Finally, the company pushed deeper into the wholesale trade with its new collection and also went back to exhibiting at trade fairs to expand its customer base.
“What’s interesting is that website sales grew throughout the recession from just over €11,000 in the first year to over €50,000 in 2012,” Lenz says. “Schull had followed Kinsale with a drop in sales and this trend continued at retail level. Fortunately for us, the online business was growing at the same time. It was at that point that we really grasped just how important it is for a rural business to trade online and not to be dependent on local trade and tourism.”
Prior to having the web store, roughly 70 per cent of Enibas’ sales were to tourists. Schull is particularly visitor dependent as the high season is very short at not much more than eight weeks.
“We have many quiet days in Schull and, out of necessity, most shops are closed out of season apart from at the weekends,” Lenz says. “Kinsale is better as it gets more passing trade from a bigger local community and visitors from Cork city.”
Lenz says recession or no recession, she was not willing to compromise on the quality of her products. Nevertheless she was mindful of the necessity to respond to increased price sensitivity among shoppers.
“People had less money to spend so I designed a collection that was very sellable to a wide audience with good price points while retaining the quality Enibas has built its reputation on.
“But I still had to make enough to pay Irish wages,” Lenz says. “I was adamant about continuing to produce in Ireland. I did not want to become a designer forced to produce abroad but still using the Irish label. We decided to strengthen what had been working best among our designs and this led to the development of the Croí Álainn collection. It has since become our most successful range,” adds Lenz who first started making jewellery as a hobby and found herself fascinated by the possibilities gold and silver presented for a creative mind.
Enibas reinvested in its website last year and introduced new features including a “discover the meaning” button that invites visitors to click to find out what the Irish sayings on its pieces mean. This Irish angle has proved a big hit with customers.
The company’s online sales have been growing at 30-40 per cent per annum for the last eight years and its expected web sales in 2016 will be in the order of €160,000.
“The turnover is still small but this growth is the strongest when compared to retail and wholesale,” Lenz says. “When we originally set up the website, we paid small money for a basic site and then put a lot of our time into getting the design and the feel right. We also wrote and uploaded the content ourselves.
“It was only last year when we rebuilt the site that we had enough financial resources to work with a web team to individualise the site and take professional product shots ourselves.
“We have always been careful with money,” Lenz adds. “We’d go a bit overdrawn, but we never liked the idea of borrowing just to keep going. Borrowing is for a project that will bring returns such as the purchase of our Schull shop two years ago. We got a 100 percent loan from the bank and most people couldn’t believe it at the time. But I guess the bank knew us and trusted our business.”
Lenz says buying patterns changed dramatically during the recession and that self-gifting is only beginning to grow again.
“In the Tiger years a couple would come in the shop, see a ring for €500, try it and buy it, no big deal. I grew up in Germany and was sort of shocked at how people spent here during that time,” she says.
“People now buy more thoughtfully. They consider a purchase; they compare and expect knowledge, service and quality. I have just launched a new collection, Lean do Bhrionglóid – ‘follow your dreams’. I think the meaning suits the times we’re in.
“I’ve always believed that passion and hard work lead to success. In a recession it’s just harder work and passion that keeps you going.”