Friday 9 December 2016

Dublin's former reality TV star reveals impressive sales muscle

Ray Shah's Bodyfirst Nutrition stores are cornering the ever-increasing Irish market for fitness supplements and health food

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

‘Word of mouth is stronger for us than advertising,’ says Ray Shah of Bodyfirst Nutrition at his shop in Ranelagh. Photo: Fergal Phillips
‘Word of mouth is stronger for us than advertising,’ says Ray Shah of Bodyfirst Nutrition at his shop in Ranelagh. Photo: Fergal Phillips

It has been a little over three years since businessman, former reality TV star and radio DJ Ray Shah opened his first sports nutrition store, Bodyfirst Nutrition in Clontarf.

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"I'm very proud of how the business has grown over the last three years from nothing into what it is today," Ray says.

"When it comes to anything related to sports, nutrition and fitness in Ireland these days, our name always pops up and that is a testament to the quality of the service that people are getting. People are proud to say that they shop in Bodyfirst and they want to tell their friends about it."

Two more Bodyfirst stores have since been added to the mix - a franchise store in Malahide, which opened last year, and a southside store, which Ray opened himself in Ranelagh village in March.

"I have always been into some kind of training, so I learned about supplements through that," Ray explains. "But my training went onto the back burner after I appeared on Big Brother and it wasn't really an important thing for me then. I was going out loads and I was busy on the radio and DJing.

"Then in about 2011, I really got back into my training and I started seeing my now fiancee, Dani. Dani's brother was working in a sports nutrition shop on the south side of Dublin and I was always going over to him to pick up stuff.

"One day it just came to me and I thought: 'Why am I travelling all of the way to the southside to get this?' I knew it would do incredibly well around my local area - in Raheny and Clontarf - and no one was doing it, so the idea went on from there very quickly."

Ray jumped at what he saw as a gaping hole in a very hungry market.

"I was doing a DJ gig in UCD and I remember saying to the lads who I was there with: 'Is it just me or are lads bigger nowadays?' People were training a lot more and I would see young lads in really good nick all around the Clontarf area, an area which also has a really big rugby ethos, and I would wonder where they were shopping," Ray says.

Ray was also aware that there was an increasing amount of women taking up weightlifting and other sports, and set out to attract this particularly new and relatively unexplored customer base.

"Even when I was trying to come up with the name for the shop, I was conscious that I wanted something that would be very unisex and that nothing would be intimidating about the place, even down to the interior.

"It is all very inviting - and the lads who work in Bodyfirst are not bodybuilders; they are lads in good nick who have great customer service skills and people are not afraid to have a chat with them.

"I think it has really been our customer service that has allowed us stand out from the crowd so much; the guys are there to give advice to customers, but they will not shove it down their throats. People appreciate being given the right advice that is specific to them as individuals and when they come to Bodyfirst they know that they are not being sold stuff that they don't need."

"The staff are our biggest asset," Ray adds.

Word of mouth has also been a key component in the success of the Bodyfirst brand.

"Word of mouth is stronger than advertising for us," Ray explains. "A lot of our customers will tell their mates and then their mates will have a chat with someone else and it ripples from there. We are Irish-owned and operated, and a lot of what we stock is actually made in Ireland too, so people like that."

Bodyfirst also enjoys a huge amount of attention on various social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, with many members of Ireland's growing fitness community #irishfitfam eager to share photos and post about their products.

"The other day, there was something like 3,300 people using #bodyfirstnutrition in their posts and that is a lot more than all of our competitors," Ray says. "People like to be associated with Bodyfirst Nutrition."

Ray takes pride in Bodyfirst being a leader in the Irish fitness nutrition market.

"We're all about being the first to bring our customers the most innovative products on the market," he says. "We are known for our selection and the fact that we are a one-stop shop. We get in products that you just cannot get in any other shops in Ireland and because we have such a huge following a lot of companies are now choosing to launch their products with us."

However, Ray is fastidious about the quality of brands he chooses to stock in Bodyfirst.

"We stock all the leading brands, such as Optimum Nutrition, Kinetica, BSN, USN, ROS Nutrition and Quest Nutrition, to name a few," he explains.

"The brands we stock are the good quality brands that people want and they all range in price. So some are better quality than others, but there is nothing that we stock in here that's crap; you can go to a discount supplement shop and they will sell every single brand under the sun, but what is the point of that when you are not getting quality and your money is going down the drain?"

As well as the three physical Bodyfirst stores now around Dublin, the company also enjoys a thriving e-commerce trade, with an online store that delivers to customers in both Ireland and the UK.

Bodyfirst has been Ray's first foray into the world of business - an impressive feat considering the Dubliner had no prior experience in the area.

"I had no business experience starting out and I've never considered myself an entrepreneur, but I suppose after Big Brother I had my own brand in selling and marketing myself; pushing my name out there and building my brand for work, so I had that experience and it has stood to me," Ray explains. "I was thrown in the deep end after the show and had to learn fast.

"Once I had the location, I put the request in to get a loan from the banks and in order to do that you have to have a solid business plan, which I had," Ray adds.

"I went to the banks during a time of recession and a lot of people thought I was mad opening up a store, but I worked hard on my business plan and secured the bank loan and it was a big boost for me to get the funding. It only took about three or four months after the initial idea for us to open."

Thankfully, Ray had just enough foresight and confidence in his plan to silence the self-doubt that began to creep in at this point.

"I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but life is full of risks; a lot of people have some amazing ideas, but unfortunately they just don't come about because they are afraid to take that step," he says.

"Bodyfirst started with myself and two other lads in 2012 and now there are 12 of us, three stores in three years and who is to say there won't be another one soon?"

Ray believes that there is sufficient demand for many more stores around Ireland; however, he is cautious about any future expansion beyond Dublin.

"When we opened up Malahide, I was looking down the franchise route and I think you have to have something sealed very tight with franchises. I knew the two lads that own Bodyfirst Nutrition Malahide very well beforehand, so that was a good tester to see how it would go. You need people who you trust when you are opening up a franchise," Ray says. "At the moment, I feel that if I am going to open up more stores I will probably do it on my own, but if I wanted to expand further around the country then I would definitely look at the franchise route because the model is there now and it does work."

More information at bodyfirst.ie

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