Time sometimes feels like it’s stood still over the past year, but as time was the one thing so many of us didn’t seem to have enough of before, some have made the most of having more of it on their hands.
John and Michael Houston, the brothers behind Houston Homewares which opened in 2017, have certainly been putting their time to good use and using the lockdown lull to their full advantage.
Previously having worked long days, in and out of the store, six days a week, the opportunity to grow and develop their luxury homewares business was constantly put on the backburner, ‘some day’, ‘one day’.
But once the Market Street shop shut last March, they realised that ‘day’ had arrived and they’ve been busier than ever, developing their own brand products and staking a claim to their share of the burgeoning online market.
John said: “We always wanted to start our own home fragrance collection but we didn’t have the time until last April / May, I was finally able to make a start. We now stock our own soy wax candles, Reed diffusers and room sprays in a range of four scents with ‘HH Interiors’ packaging.”
With a background in design before assuming a career in retail management, the development of the products was not only a chance for John to bring out his creative side, but also a good business opportunity.
“It’s a natural progression of the business to have our own-brand products. There is so much competition online and from bigger companies, so you have to have something unique to give that exclusivity. We always planned to bring out our own products, but it was having the time to focus on it and get it done.”
With the home fragrance line off to an incredible start, John has turned his attention to his next own-brand product – cushions.
“We’re at the design stage for the first collection of HH cushions. These will be high-end products, custom made using superb quality fabrics and we’re hoping to have them produced locally.
“We’re looking to have the first batch ready for reopening.
“Eventually the plan is to have an entire section of the store stocked with our own stand alone products, which we hope will attract people from all over the country not only to our website but to come visit the shop and hopefully discover the other independent retailers in the town while they’re here.”
The brothers have also been able to devote the time necessary to building their website which has enabled them to continue trading through lockdowns.
John said: “We’re fortunate enough to be in the interiors industry because we found that during the times when we were able to open in 2020, we were busier than ever. Everyone is seemingly wanting to decorate or renovate their home. Or simply change things up a little with new cushions, throws and other soft furnishings and decorative items.”
The past year has been time well spent for the Houstons, but they agree that nothing compares to time spent on the shop floor, getting to know their customers, their needs and tastes.
John said: “We are very well supported locally in Strabane and we’ve also noticed over the last 18 months that people are travelling from Derry, Omagh and all over Donegal to shop with us. We can’t wait to offer our customers a full in-store experience again as we know they enjoy being able to see and feel the quality of the items for themselves. While the website has been great, it doesn’t give a full reflection of everything we have in store.
“I love the interaction with the customers. I get a lot of people coming in saying they haven’t got a clue where to start or how to bring a room together. Often customers will have a picture of the room and I’ll be able to make suggestions – even just lay-out changes to make the space flow better which they hadn’t thought of. I think people appreciate honest advice and having a personal touch to the service. We always use the motto “What can’t Amazon do?” In a world where everything is at our fingertips, it’s the human interaction and inspiring product displays that can never be replicated online. We really do have the best customers and they are always so appreciative of help and advice.
“Strabane is a great place to shop! We have so many quality independent shops here. Although there’s a long road ahead, I am extremely optimistic for the future of the town. If we can take one positive from the past year it’s that it has highlighted the importance of community and shopping local. Strabane BID has been a big help too – the Christmas window display competition was a real positive for the town and it was a great help to us when we won!
“I was also part of the BID marketing sub-committee prior to coronavirus which was great for exchanging ideas and having a diverse group of people from the town, planning how we can make Strabane better for everyone.
“It’s also great to see how well the giftcards have taken off, the public and large local employers have really backed it so that money will now be spent locally instead of going to big businesses elsewhere.
“Working together benefits everyone.”