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February 1, 2021 —

Shopkeeper Spotlight: Wild Thing

Feeling the time was right for a change of direction, Karen McCullough switched from a demanding career as a prison counsellor and returned to her first love; floristry and horticulture, to create Wild Thing - plant purveyors, lifestyle store and café - in the beautiful coastal town of Donaghadee in Northern Ireland.
Interior of Wild Thing shop
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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How would you introduce Wild Thing?

We are a botanical and lifestyle store; a little haven in our seaside town of Donaghadee, 20 miles from Belfast, where our customers can soak up the biophilic vibes with a coffee, some craic, and browse our range of Irish and European wares.

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Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

How did you discover your love for what you do?

I’ve always loved the outdoors and had a great appreciation for where I have grown up. Ireland is the place of dreams, with our moss-soaked forests and mountains that sweep down to the sea. Training in floristry and horticulture when I was 18 was an extension of who I was.

What did you do before setting up Wild Thing?

I worked as a counsellor in a women’s prison for 15 years. It was intense and stressful yet highly rewarding. My holidays and time off were spent travelling, resting and hitting the reset button; it was during these travels that my love of lifestyle stores across Europe grew.

Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

What inspired the idea of setting up your business?

Travelling to beautiful European cities and appreciating the diversity that many of their stores had, I really felt it was something we were missing in Ireland. I wanted to create a space where like-minded people who value wholesome living could come together. Growing increasingly tired and frustrated in my career as a counsellor led me to plan a life that was very different to the one I was leading. I opened a pop-up store above a friend’s coffee shop in 2016, testing the market at weekends with our range of plants, flowers and homewares. During this time, we established a supportive customer base and the search for our first home for Wild Thing began.

Which values are a focus for your business?

In a nutshell, wholesome living.  Creating a beautiful green space that is welcoming, nurturing, relaxing and where people and products thrive.

Describe a typical day…

It always begins with an appreciation of where I live. I open my curtains to a beautiful view of the Irish sea. Next up, coffee, school run and doggie day care. It varies from here, with everything from watering plants, social media posts, brewing coffee, meeting clients to discuss office installs, replying to emails, ordering new stock, accounts, photography, making dried posies and having craic with our customers!

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Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

Where do you find creative inspiration?

All around me. My home town of Donaghadee has the most amazing sunrises and sunsets. Our summers can be bliss, but our winters are on another level, with fierce storms and raging seas. Conversations with my daughters, partner, friends, customers and dogs provide inspiration.

How do you source items for Wild Thing?

Through our travels we have come across some beautiful European brands which we now stock in store. And Instagram is super for sourcing new makers and creators.

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How did you approach the design of your store?

Our store is within a listed building that was built in 1916, the ceilings are 15-foot-high and we have fantastic lighting. The main focus always had to be around the needs and care for our plants. We have golden chains high on the ceiling to hang our trailing plants from, and we wanted to reflect this in our flooring, which was painted a soft grey with gold freehand designs throughout. We sourced ballroom chandeliers from a reclamation yard that had been in a Belfast hotel in the 1950s. Throughout our store we’ve used marble, brass and concrete – all of these materials are softened with our array of plants, blooms and textiles. We’ve created an oasis that is tranquil and jungle-esque, with bohemian vibes, and mighty fine tunes!

Tell us about your location and community…

Donaghadee is on the east coast of Ireland, not too far from Belfast, and we have magnificent views of Scotland on a sunny day. There are very few other places where you can take your pet for a pint, peek at puffins and porpoise, shop in a truly independent town with zero multinationals, and soak up the maritime history. We have noticed over recent years more young people and families appear to be valuing living by the sea. Donaghadee is thriving, and the addition of the Copeland Distillery to the town has been a boost for the local economy, tourists and traders. We pride ourselves in having the most loyal and supportive customers – Donaghadee is small coastal town with a huge heart.

Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

How did you choose the location for Wild Thing?

I really wanted to open a store away from the hustle and bustle of the city, after all, our ethos is about slowing down. We are only 20 miles from Belfast, though it feels like a completely different world.

Has your business evolved since you began?

Wild Thing is fluid, constantly evolving with what the world presents to us – particularly from 2020 we have had to adapt to solely online orders and sales.

Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

How valuable is the online community to your work?

This question is particularly pertinent this last year, as online sales were our only income for six months. Instagram followers have been our holy grail, getting us through 2020, and we are forever thankful for their loyal support, words of encouragement and love.

What are the joys and challenges involved in being an independent?

It is a true delight to help our customers build their confidence around plant parenthood and watch them build their indoor jungle. I love hearing from our customers that coming into the store for a coffee, listening to some chilled tunes, and taking a little time for themselves has been their sanctuary. This is music to our ears – we pride ourselves in helping our customers skip a little lighter on their way out. The challenges we’re currently facing involve complications around Brexit and the lack of government guidance we’ve received for Northern Ireland. Go figure… still scratching head here.

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How do you approach marketing and PR?

To be honest we haven’t spent much money on advertising, we’ve been very lucky to have been approached by national newspapers and magazines. This has had an increase in both our footfall in store and our online presence. This year we were also approached by a couple of large Irish brands who wished to collaborate with Wild Thing, and this broadened our audience and customer base.

What are your bestsellers or favourite products?

Our dried bloom bunches have become increasingly popular in the last year. We create a monthly posy that we sell in store, deliver and post nationally. House plants are also always in demand, particularly those that are good air purifiers. McNutt tweed of Donegal is also a constant best seller for us – the quality, texture and craftsmanship are impeccable.

Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

What have been your business highlights so far?

Surviving this year without a website! Our bricks and mortar store has been open for trading less than six months over the course of this last year, so we were heavily reliant on our social media platforms for selling our plants and dried posies – our dreamboat customers excelled themselves and have kept us afloat during these most trying times. We hope to have the new website up and running mid-February 2021.

What does your ideal day off look like?

A lazy brunch, fresh coffee, no phone or laptop, and a long walk with the dogs.

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Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy
Photo: Ruth Kelly / Native Ivy

Any good advice for aspiring store owners?

Stop waiting for the right time to take the jump, just go for it. Opening your own store is a way of life, so be true to yourself and have your values at the forefront – you can’t go wrong.

Find Wild Thing at 4a High St, Donaghadee and on Instagram.

Find more great independent shops and places to visit in Northern Ireland in our Instagrammer’s guide

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