Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Alison Sheehy, Head of Community at Gym+Coffee, speaking at the ‘Year on TikTok 2022’
Photo: Con O’Donoghue Photography

By Mary Cate Smith

Head of community at Gym+Coffee, Allie Sheehy talks getting ahead of negative feedback online, the nerves she felt when meeting Niall Horan and why she’s hoping to provide a lifetime guarantee with all hoodies in the next couple of years.

The Irish trio behind Gym+Coffee didn’t take long to turn their brand into one of the biggest Irish retail success stories of the past few years, recording a figure of €20million this year in revenue.

The athleisure brand that specialises in stylish hoodies has garnered some serious attention from customers and celebrities alike and counts Olympic champion Kellie Harrington, Liverpool FC midfielder Carla Humphrey and world champion gymnast Rhys McLenaghan amongst its impressive line-up of brand ambassadors.

So, what’s so unique about Gym+Coffee? When bricks and mortar stores are closing all over the country, how is this brand managing to court growth amid the withering retail landscape?

“We think it’s quite an inclusive athleisure brand,” says Allie Sheehy, Head of Community at the brand.

“Our products are really high quality. Everything’s designed to be functional enough to go for your 5k run or to wear to brunch after your gym session.”

There has been a massive lifestyle shift in Ireland over the past five years since the brand started, says Allie.

“We started a series called Summer Stretch every Sunday in parks around Ireland. We invited people to come together and exercise in the park and then to go for coffee afterwards.”

Building this community on an online platform and changing that into a living, breathing thing was an essential part of their marketing strategy.

If she could offer one piece of advice to an independent brand trying to carve its own niche in a saturated marketplace, it would be to create a community that you can engage with in real life. Bucking the online trend that attracts many of their competitors, Gym+Coffee has invested in several bricks and mortar retail stores and the bold move has paid off.

“Before I was ever working there, I was a customer. I went to events in Ireland and in America. I made connections that became lifelong friends. We help people make life richer through exercise and socializing.”

The brand seems to be a perfect success story but it faced many challenges in the last couple of years.

“Covid was an absolute whirlwind. In March 2020 when it hit, I was leading our digital team. And we didn’t know if the warehouse could deliver. We were about to sign off on a new website redesign and we cancelled it, it was a lot of money and we didn’t know if we could afford it.

“We learned how to code and rebuilt it ourselves. Covid ended up being the perfect atmosphere for our brand to grow because athleisure became the uniform of work from home. And there was this massive drive in Ireland for Irish people to support Irish brands.”

Allie and her colleagues went into the stores themselves to take out all the stock and redeliver it to the warehouse. Spending a lot of time and manpower doing this, it was frustrating when the government then decided to re-open retail and the stock had to be delivered back.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs. We try to learn from everything and have a positive attitude but not to be delusional about it. You face the hard truths and work through them.”

Inclusivity is an important tenet to their business model and the sizing ranges from xxs (UK 4-6) to xxxl (UK 18-20). They recently launched a children’s range of clothes and accessories.

The Gym+Coffee team adopts a unique approach to customer service. If there is any negative feedback online – about, say, leggings bobbling or tops ripping, they respond to each and every review online and often replace the item. They are working on developing a lifetime guarantee with the purchase of every hoodie and hope to have that implemented in the next two years.

Allie recently spoke at TikTok Creators event, Year on TikTok 2022 where she mentioned that having a sense of humour can be a powerful weapon in every business person’s arsenal.

“Our name confuses people so much. They expect us to have a gym. They expect us to have a café, which we don’t. Our most recent Black Friday campaign, we called it Craic Friday and we worked with creators who made sketches where they pretended that they were the ones coming up with a name.

“I just lean into what people think is funny. It’s better to be part of the joke than to be the butt of it. You get from people who say the brand is not for them. You have to question who our target market is – you can’t please everyone. You certainly learn to take it on the chin.

Knowing your customer is what drives their success as a brand, Allie says and she would urge fledgling businesses to really hone in on what makes their customers tick.

“We like to say we’re powered by community. We have over 10,000 reviews and we respond to every single one of them.”

Feedback and constructive criticism is very welcome from customers and Allie is starting a new campaign where customers will give feedback to a sample product before it goes on the market.

What about brands that don’t have the resources to facilitate such feedback? Start small – with something as simple as Instagram polls, says Allie. Ask your customers what they like and don’t like about your brand. Put up a question box.

Gym+Coffee is hoping to become a B Corp certified brand by the end of next year. It’s an arduous process but one that pays off – Patagonia is one brand with this accreditation blazing a trail in sustainability.

The brand might be powered by people but it’s committed to its relationship with the planet to boot.

“Up to 50% of our collections now are made from sustainable or recycled materials. We offset all of our all carbon. We’re introducing a tagging system to track our products across the supply chain and the lifecycle of our clothing.”

A number of investigations have been carried out about the damage done to the environment by the culture of returning clothes to online retailers. Returns or items with slight faults that come back into Gym+Coffee are donated to Sanctuary Runners, the organization where Irish people run with asylum seekers and migrants to foster friendship and tolerance.

Allie’s top tip for start-up owner and SMEs is to “be authentic and show the people behind the brand.” She uses TikTok to show behind-the-scenes parts of the business, like packing orders.

“Show the good times and the dark times.”

In February 2023, Gym+Coffee will be partnering with two other brands to break a world record but Allie can’t reveal any further information.

My final question is – has she met Niall Horan? She has.

“He’s an investor and advisor to the brand and he loves the products. He’d heard about us through friends and then he came to our London pop-up opening back in 2020. I was sick meeting him.”


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