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Framer Health, small business health store in Belfast
By bira

In good health

Founded almost 40 years ago by Paul Maconaghie, Framar Health store in Belfast pioneered alternative therapies and sensible nutrition in Ulster. Today Paul’s children are keeping the business relevant and healthy with a suite of complementary clinics.

THE CLASSIC PROBLEM of succession in a family-owned health store business has been skilfully avoided at Framar Health in Belfast. The young generation of the Maconaghie family is already in charge of the health food and alternative therapy business set up in 1981 and is moving forward in these challenging times.

“Having been here for 38 years, we are a mature business, but we are not resting on our laurels,” says Justin Maconaghie. “We can’t just float along. Continued success in any retailing business is all about being relevant to customers’ needs. For example, we are looking at how to get this business plastic-free. Going forward, we want to set up refilling stations in the shop so people can bring in their own containers for some products, but we are determined to do whatever we do correctly, not just to jump in feet first.”

Justin is the main buyer for the food, supplements, vitamins, toiletries and household products that dominate the neat and tidy ground floor, while his older sister Katrina looks after marketing and the website, as well as practising massage, especially pregnancy massage, and reflexology in the suite of seven consulting and treatment rooms on the two upper floors.
Katrina’s husband, Edwin Howe, looks after finances and the IT system. In another family connection, Justin’s wife Arline worked in the business for eight years before she took a break to raise their children.

Such family commitment made Framar’s reputation as the pioneering health shop in Northern Ireland. The name is an amalgamation of the first names of Frank and Margaret Maconaghie, but the instigator of the concept was their son Paul – father of Katrina and Justin – who established the business when the health food industry as we know it today scarcely existed.

“Our father was a pioneer for the sector in Northern Ireland,” says Katrina. “Grandfather Frank was a nurse who had worked in Nigeria and became interested in complementary medicine and homeopathy. So Dad had that family background, but he was the one who saw that a health food shop would have a serious future. After working in retail for several years Dad made the move and opened his own business. When he began, after doing a business degree his father had encouraged him to take, his mother, who had been a secretary, assisted him in the business.”

As well as national chains like Holland & Barratt, there are many good independent health food stores around – lots of them Bira members through the link up with the NAHS (National Association of Health Stores) – but what marks Framar Health out from most others is its clinics offering a range of complementary treatments.

The freehold premises at 595 Lisburn Road in south Belfast are a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in alternative therapies. Grandfather Frank was the founder and first practitioner of the Framar Health clinic, providing homoeopath-ic, nutritional and herbal advice to local clients.

In yet another family connection, Katrina and Justin’s mother Pearl played an integral role in the development of the clinics. A graduate in Biochemistry from Queen’s University Belfast, in 1984 she became one of the first reflexologists in Northern Ireland as well as being a fully-qualified nutritionist. She joined her father-in-law as the clinic’s second practitioner.
The reputation of Framar Health was cement-ed from 1993 by an association with Dutch naturopath Jan de Vries, who was a legend in the alternative treatment world. Katrina and Justin, who began working in the shop in their mid-teens, recall a queue running down the stairs and out into the street when Jan held his clinics for three days each month. He continued to work at Framar until his death in 2015.

Like their parents and grandparents, the Maconaghie children hold various qualifications in nutrition and alternative therapies. Katrina explains: “The sector we are in is no longer niche. But it is easy to forget that in our early days, reflexology was regarded as a fringe therapy.”
Framar Health Clinics

The suite of clinics is located on the upper two floors of the premises on Lisburn Road

Today, the consulting rooms, refurbished in 2018 to a high standard, are the base for 15 self-employed practitioners, offering treatments from psychotherapy to sports massage, and from nutritional analysis to osteopathy. Jan de Vries’ daughter Tertia Molenaar de Vries is one of them.
Frank and Margaret Maconaghie died in 2006 and 2007. The transition from Paul’s leadership of the business to his children was planned over a couple of years and the founder formally stepped down at the end of 2018 at the age of 62.

Katrina, Justin and Edwin, who are all in their thirties, appreciate the unique legacy and reputation they have inherited, but are open about the challenges they face, even in an independents’ stronghold like Lisburn Road, a mile-long boulevard which features few national chains.
“Our challenges are universal to independent retailers,” observes Justin, “matters like the drop in footfall and business rates. Business rates need to be incremental for the first few years of a new business to ensure their longevity.”

As in its early days, Framar’s core customers are primarily aged 40-65. As well as a strong local core, the shop and clinics attract customers from across Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The greater awareness of alternative therapies helps in attracting younger customers.

Says Katrina: “We have more competition than in previous days, but we are encouraged because the subject is more mainstream. There are a few other independent specialists in Belfast, but not in south Belfast. One of the things we want to do is become more community-based. We are hoping local schools, for example, add nutrition education to the curriculum.”

Educating consumers is a big part of the family’s work. Justin remarks: “Kids don’t have basic information of what different food groups do. Older people may be much more aware of what they are eating as today they have more information to join the dots. Our wish is for people to go home after a visit empowered to look after their nutrition better. Rather than dictating to people what they should take, we simply give them information and point them in the right direction.”

With community support in mind, the business has become a nutritional partner to the Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon. Practicing what they preach, Edwin has competed in multiple marathon relays and half marathons since 2016. In May this year he competed in his first marathon as Framar Health Ambassador in the city’s marathon. Framar’s sales of sports supplements have increased since the tie-up was made.

On products, the Framar team stresses the importance of high-quality names such as Viridian, BioForce and Lamberts, who are their main suppliers of supplements. As head buyer, Justin applauds manufacturers that continue to support the independent health food shop network, even if they also sell to the public online.
The business has had an ecommerce website since 2001 as Paul Maconaghie felt online was something the business should be involved in. The site is the responsibility of Katrina, who confirms it offers a steady addition to the overall turnover. Designed by Katrina and Edwin on the Wix platform, the site – upgraded for the fourth time in August 2018 – is simple and easy-to-use and acts as an information point for the clinics and a virtual shop window for Fra-mar’s best-selling products.

“While the site is not a big part of what we do, we want to be forward-thinking and not thought of as just a well-established shop,” says Katrina. “Most of our marketing is done via social media, with the Facebook activity talking to the local community and Instagram building up our profile and relevance.”

Stock is controlled via an RM6000 Epos system, which the business has had since 2001 and is the province of Edwin. As buyer, Justin needs to keep on top of prevailing trends in health foods and supplements. In recent months, possibly a result of the running connection, sales of Cherry Active for muscle recovery have increased. Conversely, coconut oil products are less popular than they were, while turmeric-based goods are in more demand. At least six times a month, Justin is contacted by another company wanting him to stock its CBD, or cannabis-related cannabidiol products.

“I am looking more and more to the US for new brands,” says Justin. “If we are going to be very relevant, we can’t stick to old familiar lines.”

Opening another branch is not on the cards. Between 1986 and 2007 Framar Health had a second shop in the Ormeau Road, about 20 minutes’ drive away. It was run by Paul’s twin brother David, who is one of the nine very experienced (and often formally qualified) staff who provide expert help in Lisburn Road.

Many customers from the Irish Republic come to buy products like St John’s wort and ginkgo biloba, which are heavily regulated in the south. On how Brexit might affect cross-border trade, Justin says: “The general uncertainty has made people hold back on spending across retailing. Our Irish customers are a massive part of our business and like every trader in Northern Ireland we want Brexit to result in trading being as seamless as it is today.

“Millions of people rely on family-run businesses like us and collectively the independent sector must be paying more in taxes than Amazon or Facebook, but our views don’t seem to count. If they make trading harder, prices will go up. We have already seen costs rise because of the fall in sterling. We certainly don’t want a £9 bottle of vitamins to end up costing £16.
“I am optimistic, however, about the future and the challenges it holds for our industry.”
Framar Health
  • 595 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 7GS
  • Founded: 1981
  • Supplements suppliers include Viridian, Lamberts, Bioforce, Active Edge, Wild Nutrition, Nutri Advanced, Pukka, Solgar. Household and toiletries suppliers include Dr Hauschka, Ecover, Method, Faith in Nature, Neal’s Yard, Antipodes, Natracare
  • Bira member since 2017


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