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Designist: ‘We saw a whole new set of customers find us online’

Dublin gift shop hasn’t looked back since switching focus during lockdown

Designist launched in late 2010, founded by Jennie Flynn and Barbara Nolan who opened the shop on South Great George’s Street in Dublin 2.

The business had a clear aim of closing the gap between designers and customers and they wanted to showcase the best of Irish and international design, and make it accessible. Opening in the midst of a recession was no easy feat, but they managed to claim their little patch, carving out their gifting niche.

Before the pandemic they did roughly 80-85 per cent of all their business in their physical shop.

“Our website served as a kind of catalogue or extra shop window for people who were going to visit the store anyway. That all changed with Covid. We saw a whole new set of customers find us online. We had to close our doors, but behind those shutters, we were working away, dispatching parcels to every corner of Ireland and far beyond. 2020 saw us do the majority of our business online, and we are now getting used to the idea that that’s how business will be going forward. I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the events of 2020 – as one wise customer once put it – it’s not so much pivoting anymore, as pirouetting,” Nolan says.


Within weeks they went from having two stores and 10 staff to three staff working mostly from home, unsure of when or how they might be able to reopen the doors.

“We dug our heels in, stuck to the business principles of giving exceptional service and delighting the customer with remarkable gifts and bright ideas. It held up. Our online traffic improved. We found new customers and people liked what they saw. We managed to focus all our efforts on what was going on online. We noticed that gifting happens despite pandemics, and that we serve our customers well, regardless of their ability to pop in for a browse. It shed new light on what we do, and gave us confidence to just keep doing it,” she says.

Flynn did everything to keep spirits up arranging surprise treats from other small businesses, busy with their own pivots – Cakes from Le Patissier, boxes from The Fruit People, beers from The Big Romance and chocolate from Bean & Goose. “It was very inspiring to see the tenacity of other small businesses like ours. Support goes both ways,” Nolan says.

“We’ve always been lucky to have a very loyal customer base but seeing such a groundswell of people looking to support small Irish businesses during these times was heartwarming. The general sentiment was that they were delighted we had kept going, and everyone was so understanding about delays and stock limitations.”

Pivoting to an online focus has meant they’ve weathered the last 17 months and are now back to a team of eight and with any luck, will be back to 10 before Christmas.

"We're also delighted to have been awarded funding through the Enterprise Ireland Covid Online Retail Scheme recently, which feels like a mark of confidence in the business. And while we're delighted with the development of the online side of the business, our first love is definitely face-to-face retail. Getting to reopen the shop floor to customers has been brilliant. When we reopened in May there was this amazingly giddy feeling in the shop, both from staff and customers, who were delighted to be back in town. While we're not through the woods yet there are definitely reasons to feel optimistic. We have our fingers crossed and are putting our best foot forward.

"No business moves backwards. There are so many positive outcomes, people are leaning into shopping greener and shopping better. People are turning away from online giants like Amazon and are aware that a bit of support can mean the world to smaller retailers. This is great news for small businesses like us," she concludes.