Friday 20 September 2019

'Braveheart' fashion boss winning battle to put Sligo store on the map

Eamonn Cunningham of EJ Menswear has combined quirky marketing with top brands

Eamonn Cunningham founder of EJ Menswear, at his Gratton Stree store in Sligo — a former Bank of Ireland building which he bought in 2001. Photo: James Connolly
Eamonn Cunningham founder of EJ Menswear, at his Gratton Stree store in Sligo — a former Bank of Ireland building which he bought in 2001. Photo: James Connolly

Aine O'Connor

Unfair stereotype it may be but provincial menswear shops conjure a certain staid image. However, despite decades in the business, no-one would accuse Eamonn Cunningham of being staid. The success of his Sligo shop, EJ Menswear, is down to hard work, quality and service, following his gut instinct, looking to the future and the occasional canter down Sligo streets dressed as Braveheart.

"I started in the rag trade in the seventies and I never imagined I'd still be in it in 2017", says Eamonn. The menswear world he entered was traditional, he had to wear a suit, and while he found he liked the rag trade he wanted to do it his own way. "Just call it instinct really, I saw unit in 1994 and opened a tiny little shop that was the size of a large bedroom. I called it EJ's Jeanswear. At the time I was paying £135 a month and the rates were only £500, but me being me I thought that was too much!"

The rent and rates cost posed a dilemma when he wanted to expand. "In 1997 I got the chance to move across the street to Market Cross, it was a big jump in rent and I worked virtually on my own. But more space gave me the chance to get more brands and lots that were new to Sligo."

Brand selection is key but from early on Eamonn also understood the power of marketing, not just in terms of target audience and reach, but in tone. "I always tried to be a little bit different in marketing, that's always been there from day one. I used cartoons or caricatures rather than real pictures, I put Lady Erne in a pair of jeans, that kind of thing."

The marketing drew the customers, the aim was to keep them with goods and service. Business was good but rather than sit tight Eamonn was still looking to expand.

"In 2001 the Bank of Ireland premises on Grattan Street came up for sale and again, the gut instinct being the way it was, I thought 'I can do this or I'm going to try to'. No one believed me and the guide price was over my budget. But then 9/11 happened and a lot of the big players backed out because people didn't know what would happen, recession or world war or what, but I went for it. The price came down within my range and I bought the building."

A €1.6m price tag meant a jump in costs but as he had learned before, with risk comes opportunity and he suddenly had one of Sligo's most iconic old buildings with which to work. He set about filling the generous floorspace carefully, approaching some of the big brands like Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger, "You showcase the merchandise you have already, but it was the premises that really sold it to them, they could see that we were serious."

The recession hit different sectors at different times and retail was hit early on. "In the retail business you can see people's spending habits and it started to be obvious in September, October of 2007 that people were spending less. It would have happened earlier only for the SSIA money came out that year.

"Things started to go downwards and if someone had told you you had seven years of this ahead you'd have thrown in the towel. In the recession we could have lost everything we had so you were fighting to survive. I would say that the whole social media thing was nearly born out of the recession and out of the pure need to survive, to keep the business going and keep people in jobs.

"The best way of defence was attack so rather than sit back we started investing in marketing so the business we were losing locally we started to spread around the county because people from surrounding towns and villages were coming in." Eamonn's interest in quirky marketing worked well online, his son Mark was in the business by then and the shop's staff have all been involved in what has become a strong multi-platform social media presence.

During the lean years, growing the customer base kept the business going. Today it is paying dividends. "We are actually reaping the rewards now and we have people travelling from all over the country." Some of the people have been famous, a younger Conor McGregor is on YouTube extolling EJ Menswear's virtues and local megastars Westlife were regulars too.

"Yeah, McGregor before he made it big. We used to fit out Westlife, Cian and Shane both worked for us actually." More recently they have a following amongst Country and Western fans: "Nathan Carter we fit him out, Jimmy Buckley and we have a bit of a following in the country and western - fans travel from all over the country."

Some of EJ Menswear's biggest online hits however have starred Eamonn himself, running around the shop, jumping through paper walls, dressed as Jesus, Cupid or McGregor, or the time he went down the streets of Sligo on a horse dressed as William Wallace, an expedition that is creeping up on half a million views now.

Community involvement is also very important to Eamonn which has earned them a very loyal customer base. "It's something we've always done. We'd do fashion shows in the middle of nowhere, we'd support local communities in Leitrim and Mayo. You're in touch with your customers and it does generate business and people are really thankful, but apart from being good business we want to do it. We also get heavily involved in sponsorship, the rugby, the soccer, GAA, EJ Allstars in basketball, Michael Conlan the boxer. We like to think we're giving back to the local community."

All is good but still Eamonn is working on the next frontier - online sales. "People ask why don't we open in another town but we know we couldn't open another shop and repeat the success, and I love the hands on. The one thing about the online is it's not very personal, I'd love if there was a mini me to jump out of the bag and say 'How's it going?'

So the online is a work in progress and it's not the whole future, it's part of the future. We're just after doing a big tie-up with Ryco in Newry and they have so much for confidence in what we're doing they're pretty much investing in our business. They're building a website for us, we're working together and they take a commission going forward. "Our challenge is to bring what we do on the shop floor to online."

There are also challenges due to the different shopping habits of men and women. "Men are more last minute, they're going out tonight or tomorrow night whereas women will buy weeks in advance. So we guarantee next day delivery five days a week and we are hoping by the end of the year to be able to do it seven days."

In menswear a large proportion of customers are women. "A lot of our customers are ladies buying for men, a lot of our regular men customers we have never seen! And a lot of customers online are women." They cover all occasions from casual to weddings, they catered for over 300 last year and all ages, "From teenage right up to no age limit", so the marketing has to have a broad appeal.

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"I couldn't do the social media, my heart wouldn't be in it if I couldn't back it up on the shop floor. We have the goods and we know how the customer should be treated. We had our busiest year ever last year, we could never see that coming if you go back two years even and this year we're up about 11pc and that's excluding the online. I'd like to stress too that the staff is a big part of the business, we couldn't do what we're doing without them."

www.ejmenswear.ie

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