Friday 15 November 2019

Shop local for the personal touch

Independent local shops say service with a smile puts them ahead of the competition, writes Fiona McBennett

PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD: John and Martin Foyle, owners of The Orchard shop in Ranelagh. Photo: Tony Gavin
PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD: John and Martin Foyle, owners of The Orchard shop in Ranelagh. Photo: Tony Gavin

With big brand convenience stores cropping up across the country, you could be forgiven for thinking that a local shop where everyone knows your name is a thing of the past.

However, many independent newsagents and convenience stores around Ireland have established themselves as cornerstones of their communities and held onto their loyal customers.

Even in recent years - with a harsh economic climate and tough competition from national and international brands to battle against - the personal touch and friendly welcome these shops offer has meant that customers keep coming back for more.

"The one thing I really enjoy about the job is meeting people. I know it's a cliché - but it's true," says John Foyle, owner of The Orchard convenience store in Ranelagh.

John and his twin brother, Martin, have been running the shop together for the past 22 years, having previously worked there as teenagers after school. The pair had successful jobs in large chain stores when the opportunity arose to buy the shop.

"We both realised that we weren't really suited to the chain store mentality but we had learnt a bit of the trade through our jobs," says John. "When the shop became available we were delighted. It's all I really know at this stage and thankfully we have managed to keep it going, although it has been touch and go a few times over the years."

Having a shop in a busy Dublin suburb can be both a blessing and a curse, according to John. While the shop can get up to 800 customers a day, the many big brands that have opened up nearby present huge competition.

"The biggest challenge to us in the past year or so was the Tesco Express that opened up nearby, which literally halved our sales of bread and butter items," he says.

"We can't compete with them price-wise, so we have focused ever since on selling sweets and treat items as well as responding to customer demands, like with our magazine system, where we send a text to a customer when their order comes in.

"We used to open until midnight but we close at eight now, as there just isn't the trade there any more with the various multiples, like Spar and Lidl, around."

Running the shop for over two decades means that the twins have formed good relationships with many of their regular customers, whom they value greatly.

"We get to meet a lot of interesting personalities and I've joined a book club through the shop," says John. "When people come in, I will always say hello to them. It's all about the customers at the end of the day. We want to keep them happy."

Eugene O'Toole opened Eugene's Food Store in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, in 1976. Today, he runs the shop with his wife, Sheila and their son, Gavin, and admits that things have become more challenging in recent times.

"I was always interested in starting up on my own. It was my first experience of setting up a business and it was very different from today. There wasn't as much competition to start with and it didn't cost as much to stock a shop as it does now."

As well as convenient store staples, such as bread and milk, the shop also has a full butcher's counter and sells a selection of wines. Eugene feels that the business's personal approach helps when competing with bigger names.

"It's tough now trying to compete - but we give personal service and do local deliveries, which is different to the bigger brands.

"We were worried when Dunnes opened just up the road from us a few years ago but we held onto our loyal customers. The recession also had an impact on us, like everyone, but we kept our head down and kept on going."

While running the shop involves a lot of hard work, Eugene says that he still enjoys it after all these years.

"More hours go into it than you would think. We have invested a lot into this business and it means a huge amount to us. I like meeting people and chatting to them and giving them the time of day, which is an important part of it all."

Catriona Lonergan and her husband, Padraig, opened their newsagents, Just a Thought, in the Southgate Shopping Centre, Drogheda, six years ago.

While the shop is in close proximity to big brands, the couple have ensured its survival by going the extra mile and responding to their customers' needs.

With the economy only starting to find its feet again, Catriona believes that many customers still have no choice but to shop in chain stores, even when they might not want to.

"The biggest problem is the disposable income just isn't there. The customers might want to support the local independent retailer - but sometimes their purse rules their heart."

Building a rapport with customers is essential to the business and Catriona says that talking with people in the shop every day is the part of the job that she enjoys most.

"I feel it's important to recognise customers and to get to know them by name and appreciate their business. We have regular customers who we would chat to on a daily basis and I would be aware that for some of them, it might be the only conversation they have for the day.

"Over the years, we have got to know bits and pieces about their lives, like if there's a new baby or a wedding in the family. A local shop is very much a social outlet and I get a great buzz out of dealing with people."

Delivering papers to her customers at five o'clock every morning is one way that Chris Sloan, owner of Yvonne's Newsagents in Kildare, keeps her loyal client base.

"We have been getting up for years and years to deliver papers; rain, hail or snow. We don't even charge for it. Myself and my son do it now - seven days a week," she says.

The business began 30 years ago, in the same premises in which Chris and her husband, Brian, originally ran a toy shop. Since then, the couple have worked hard to keep up with the changing times.

"Nowadays you can pull into a petrol station and get everything under the one roof, people don't need to bother driving into the main street of a town to pick up a paper. It's not an easy game to be in now. We have to compete and we have to be good at something to keep the people that we have."

Chris says that the shop is popular place for locals to catch up in the mornings and that familiarity she has with customers is what sets her business apart from competition.

"The conversation in the shop in the morning is better than Coronation Street. Everyone comes in and has a chat and maybe a cup of tea, then heads off. There's great camaraderie between the customers, it's very enjoyable to be a part of it."

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