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Nature Shop proves corporate responsibility pays off

Being a responsible corporate citizen has worked out well for Nature Shop.

Being a responsible corporate citizen has worked out well for Nature Shop.

When I called Nature Shop’s chief executive Jeremy Curragh for a chat, he was one of many dealing with a rather sticky situation in Nature Shop’s hometown of Tauranga. It had been less than a week since the Rena had run aground on the Astrolabe Reef, and residents and businesses alike were reeling from the oily aftermath.

“A disaster is exactly what it is,” he said. “They’ve got about a thousand people out there today in teams shovelling.”

Talk about opposites. Far from having a negative impact on the environment, social and environmental stewardship is at the core of Nature Shop’s philosophy. And in the increasingly competitive market of online retail, Curragh is adamant it’s one of the keys to the company's ongoing success.

“We have a lot of competitors but there’s no one competing with us in terms of the whole package – our product mix and company values.” And if there is, Curragh is yet to find them.

When you stand back and look at the numbers, the company’s growth has been nothing short of impressive, especially when you consider the online retailer has only been in operation since 2007. In 2010 it picked up three titles at the 10th annual Deloitte Fast 50 index of New Zealand's high growth businesses: fastest growing exporter, second-fastest growing company overall, and fastest growing retail or consumer products business.

Having experienced such heights of success, Curragh is realistic about ongoing growth. The company may not be growing as fast as it was in its first couple of years, but it is still growing and Curragh expects it to turn over in excess of $30 million by the end of March 2014.

While its headquarters may be based in Tauranga, New Zealand can’t take the credit for the company’s sales success. Exports account for 90 percent of Nature Shop’s sales, with the UK market taking the lion’s share at 48 percent. In fact the UK has proved so popular, the company set up a distribution centre there last year to help meet the demand.

All in all it’s not bad for a venture that started out of the back of Conrad and Natalie Cranfield’s garage. After conducting market research into what products had high sales potential, the Tauranga couple concluded sheepskin boots were the way to go and soon began selling the EMU brand of sheepskin boots online. In the course of a year, the operations swiftly moved from the Cranfield’s garage to a warehouse in Tauranga, and other products and brands were soon added to the mix.

These days the company sells everything from Icebreaker to Patagonia, Teva footwear to its own brand of sheepskin boots called Snugs. The company is expanding, but on one condition. All its products must be sourced from responsible suppliers.

“We’ve got a brand philosophy and value that says all the products we sell have come from companies and manufacturers that are socially and environmentally responsible.”

Beyond responsible procurement, the company itself contributes 10 percent of its after tax profits to environmental and charitable causes because, Curragh says, “we truly believe in giving something back”.

Charities to have benefited from the gesture include Canteen, Heart Children and the World Wildlife Fund. But this ‘tipping point’, as its refereed to on the company’s website, is not a gesture prided solely on a moral crusade.

“We’d also like to think we benefit commercially from it, and that’s where that tipping point comes in,” says Curragh.

He’s confident that a customer on the cusp of making a purchase might well be swayed into making the purchase if they’re aware of that 10 percent donation to charity. And that, says Curragh, is your tipping point.

“I think consumers are very intelligent shoppers. It’s not always about the price. They look at the whole gambit around company responsibility.”

He’s also adamant that responsible corporate behaviour helps create customer loyalty.

Elsewhere the company is busy strengthening its online presence with a unique German offering. While the UK takes the majority of the overseas sales pie, Germany is quickly on the up and “to be serious about that German market” the company launched a German language website in November this year.

But what about the seemingly lucrative market in Asia, after all, it is right on our doorstep. Curragh says there are plans to make the move into Asia but, being such a large exercise, the move is realistically a couple of years away yet.

There is however a market closer to home the company is keen to sink its teeth into. With its current 9 percent stake in Nature Shop’s exports, Curragh reckons Australia is a “bigger potential market”.