News Colum Kenny

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Bangers and cash: how Superquinn gave Irish middle class a taste of the good life

The death of the iconic brand is about a less leisurely society with less money to spare, writes Colum Kenny

Published 11/08/2013 | 05:00

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TROLLEY DASH: Patricia Devine with Feargal Quinn in a branch of Superquinn – the retail boss made shoppers feel special when they walked into the store

News that around 300 jobs are to go at Superquinn and Marks & Spencer is horrible for people who will be thrown out of work.

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At a time when announcing the creation of just 50 jobs over three years makes news on RTE, this is a blow.

But 2,500 other Superquinn workers remain employed, in stores to be renamed next February part of the SuperValu chain.

The death of Superquinn's brand marks the end of an era. Its stores were the fruit of economic growth and optimism born in the Fifties and Sixties. We had never had it so good. And will not again for many years.

This is not just about the renaming of Superquinn as SuperValu by its new owner Musgrave. It is about a less leisurely society with less cash to spare. And it is about the squeezing of the middle class.

As middle-class incomes decline, families seek cheaper options at Lidl and Aldi, Tesco or Dunnes. Many cannot afford to go often to specialist outlets for the feeling once found only at Superquinn.

Back in the Seventies, stepping into Superquinn was stepping into sunshine. Here was the good life, with continental food and a new way of treating customers. It was part US shopping mall, and part "because you deserve it".

Never had a pizza before? Now you could buy one in your own store. And even coleslaw. Wow!

We saw ourselves in a new light, and we liked what we saw. Generations had scrimped and saved, and watched every penny. As Ireland expanded and opened to the European Union, a new generation found itself at a feast rather than a famine. And Feargal Quinn was there to help us enjoy it.

Just walking the aisles in Superquinn was a kind of middle-class therapy. And there were always some special treats. The Superquinn sausage was a statement of sophistication. Big, thick and porky, you could stay in bed and gobble it up instead of going to Mass.

And Superquinn kept reinventing itself, sharing its delight in itself with a nation delighted to have arrived. From the birth of RTE television to the heady days of Jack Charlton's Green Army, Superquinn made the cake that we thought we might ice forever.

Dunnes was grand of course, when people who could not afford to spend a bit more than they needed to spend. But you could always run into a Superquinn shop and be sure to feel treated a little bit special.

Feargal Quinn recognised that. His stores claimed to have devised Ireland's first loyalty card scheme in the retail trade, with the introduction of the SuperClub card in 1993. This built the image of a place where you felt that that you always got something extra.

And you often did in fact get extra personal attention from its well-trained employees.

Superquinn survived economic setbacks, especially in the Eighties and early Nineties when recession bit hard. But it could not survive the success of Ireland's Celtic Tiger. Now we had bigger pleasures, and even Feargal Quinn seemed unable to find ways to stroke our jaded palate. He cashed in his retail chips.

And bigger fish were swimming in the Irish shopping sea. British leviathan Tesco set its eyes on Ireland, and our football patriotism did not extend to shopping Irish. Tesco has made more money than it cares to say in this country.

And Marks & Spencer, could not resist the lure of Ireland when Ireland had plenty of lolly.

Then came the Germans, in a frenzy of white beer and frozen foods. By the time that Feargal Quinn's family sold its interest in the company in 2005, there were said to be 21 shops and a team of over 5,000 workers.

Could Superquinn ever have survived as it once was? At first we thought that the property boom might do for it. The excellent locations of so many shops made it an attractive buy for anyone willing to tear them down and throw up yet more offices or apartments on borrowed money.

Yet the chain survived that threat, and the Irish Musgrave group bought it. It is pouring €25m into the chain with a view to its staying in the grocery business. That business has changed, and whatever future the shops have it will be under the banner of SuperValu.

The party is over. We face years of austerity and debt, and it is hard to see us ever again being quite as chipper as we were when we thought that we had arrived forever.

It was fun while it lasted, and it did not have to end in so many tears. Few would begrudge Feargal Quinn what he got out of it. He has served Ireland well both in the private sector and in public bodies such as An Post and the Seanad.

Many of us hope that the Irish Musgrave group makes a go of the company that they have taken over. We live in a harsher world. Musgrave will make a good public relations start if they can look after Superquinn's former employees well.

Sunday Independent

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