Waltons parklife retune makes music for their tills 'Once' again
"THIS guy came into me from Dublin City Council's BID scheme (Business Improvement District) and he said to me that he wanted three or four thousand euros. He said that I had to pay it."
"So I asked him: 'What's it for?'
"And he said: 'Well for example let's just say there's some graffiti on the walls in the street out there – well we'll come around and remove it. Or say if the street is dirty, then we'll come around and make sure it's clean again'."
"So I said to him: Do you know what? That sounds exactly like the sort of services that I pay rates for."
Niall Walton, MD of the Waltons Music Retail Chain believes that retail patterns have changed irreparably in Dublin City Centre in recent times, but that neither the City Council (which has been widely criticised for unreasonably high rates) nor the main street landlords (for unreasonably high rents) seem to have realised this fact.
"Not so long ago absolutely everybody came into the city centre to do their shopping. These days half of consumers will actually refuse to go into the city centre because they can't get parking, because they have two or three kids to bring with them, because it takes too long, it costs too much and its too much hassle.
"There's still a strong city centre cache among people who work there, but overall there's no doubt that the shopper numbers are down."
He says that, in addition, to rates which are out of touch with current conditions, the City Council is now looking for money for its BIDs, which Walton alleges are simply another way of collecting even more rates.
For his part Niall Walton has just engineered the biggest change in the long established Irish family business's history – the decision to remove half of its retail presence from Dublin city centre area by closing their first ever shop in Frederick Street, Dublin 1 – opened in the 1930s by founder Martin Walton – and relocating instead to a retail park in Blanchardstown."
The thing is that Waltons is not the sort of business that people expect to move from the city centre to a modern suburban retail park. The family business is a niche retail outfit whose customers have traditionally sought them out rather than passed by their door.
Walton reckons that 12 per cent of Irish people buy musical instruments and paraphernalia (high in international terms) and for that reason the Walton family business has more in common with fishing, camera and golf shops than it does with its new neighbours at Blanchardstown – big mass market movers like Woodies and TK Maxx – purveyors of goods which everybody buys.
But the move to a new 7,500 sq ft store at Blanchardstown's Retail Park is a risk that appears to have paid off in spades.
After just eight weeks, it is clear that the turnover at the new location is already double what it was at the former Dublin 1 store while costing much the same outlay in terms of rental costs. Overall turnover for the group is up 15 per cent thanks to the new outlet, and at a time when specialist Irish family-owned retail businesses like Waltons are dropping like flies.
"Our timing was also particularly good, if we'd have done it five years ago the investment to move would have cost €1.2m instead of €500,000."
Indeed five years ago an Irish outfit with two outlets like Waltons would not have gotten near Blanchardstown, one of Ireland's top two most sought after shopping centres, along with Dundrum.
"It can take an hour to get to the city centre. Blanchardstown has 90,000 people within a ten-minute car journey and 900,000 people within a half hour's journey. And if they've travelled there in the first place then they're going to spend money.
"The people who come to the new shop bring their children along with them – families come out for the day and come into the store, something that's rare to see in the city centre store."
He estimates that, thanks to the footfall at nearby Blanchardstown Shopping Centre 30 per cent of the business at the new store is from casual passing trade, a total almost unheard of at Frederick Street – at least not since the 1960s when all the showband buses parked there as their occupants hit the city's big four dancehalls.
The Frederick Street shop which closed earlier this year – the grandly named Waltons World of Music – will be missed by generations of musicians – thanks to the Waltons' ethos of allowing people to play for hours on their instruments even if they're not buying (The famous piano scene from Once was filmed in the George's Street Store).
It meant that aspiring young bands from the northside, among them names like JJ72, refined their playing skills in Frederick Street's back room where they knew they would be in no danger of being shuffled home.
But local bureaucracy had already dealt the store and others in the area a serious blow by rerouting of the traffic system and killing the passing car trade.
Meanwhile, less buses now stop in the vicinity and the steady deterioration of the top part of O'Connell Street over many years has also been a factor.
Something needed to be done.
"Just after Christmas we took the decision to close the shop and started negotiating with Blanchardstown. We knew we had to do it but we certainly weren't confident that the move would be a success."
But Niall Walton is still very much in tune with city centre trading. The family's well known second store at George's Street is trading successfully, in part thanks to what he describes as "sensible" terms with his landlord.
"We're lucky to have a reasonable landlord at our George's Street store and we cut out a fair deal for our last review in 2008, but other retailers have been and are being put out of business by rents which just do not reflect current city centre trading."
He cites the example of Peats as a family owned business with similarities to his own which had attempted to expand to cover for the increased costs of trading in Dublin city centre but didn't quite make it.
"Just after Christmas last year we weren't sure how things would work out. Now we're looking forward to Christmas at Blanchardstown with a new enthusiasm.
"Our move reflects the change in Dublin city centre trading. We had two stores in the centre of Dublin within a fifteen minute walk of one another when changed conditions dictated that one would do. Our George's Street store still does as well as it ever did – it's booming, but now we have another thriving store in Blanchardstown.
"I'd advise all long established city traders to examine their business to see if, like us, they'd been losing out in the city but more importantly, whether they've been failing to take advantage of a whole new market – that different kind of shopper to be caught off the M50."
Meanwhile, in the new Blanchardstown retail park store, little girls are bashing the strings on pink ukuleles, gangs of pimply teenagers are crouching down together over bass and lead guitars. Siblings are trying to play tunes with one another on pianos. It all seems very familiar. . . that unique Waltons cacophony. . . 10 or more instruments playing ten or more different tunes. . . all at Once.