Saturday 17 August 2019

Sinead Ryan: 'Quinn was a winner as he made life easier for mums'

Service with a smile: Feargal Quinn and members of staff, enjoying his 70th birthday celebration
Service with a smile: Feargal Quinn and members of staff, enjoying his 70th birthday celebration

Sinéad Ryan

Not just his wife and daughters, who I'm sure he loved dearly. But all women. He understood their needs and problems, particularly mothers. He "got" mothers.

While obituaries will attest to his business nous, retail acumen and senatorial smarts, it is the ordinary "housewife" who will remember Feargal Quinn most fondly.

Yes, Superquinn was a bit more expensive than other shops, but what it lacked in the bargain basement it more than made up for in the experience. And ironically, it was the tiniest of gestures, the smallest of ideas, many of which cost him absolutely nothing to implement, that mothers appreciated the most.

Someone to pack your bags. Honestly, it's hard for anyone under 35 to appreciate what that means. Oh, you might get a cub scout bag-packing on the odd weekend for a fundraiser but you're looking over their shoulder so the potatoes don't get dropped on top of the eggs.

You certainly don't get it in the 'discount' retailers where you speed-pack as everything flies off the conveyor.

Feargal trained (trained!) people to do it properly, with a smile, and was sometimes there to do it himself. Oh, the relief.

Pennies at the till. The simplest of concepts based on an old-fashioned honour system. Feargal realised scrambling in your purse for a couple of pence, with a child hanging out of you, and manoeuvring a trolley was one multi-task too many. If you were short a couple of cents, or got a couple in your change, take or leave them. Ingenious.

Umbrellas. It's almost inevitably raining when you leave the supermarket. Piled high with groceries, your car's parked in the furthest spot, Feargal supplied not only the umbrella (emblazoned with branding, naturally), but a young man to hold it. That, for some mums, may have been the mannerly highlight of their day.

As an innovator, others will reference his business prowess. They'll mention his customer service ethos, his passion about product and food origins when everyone else was concerned with "cheap". They'll talk about his championing of Irish brands, small artisan product ranges he was prepared to give a marketplace to.

For the women, the mums, especially those from my generation and the one before, it was the family man not the businessman that was his most important attribute.

In the '70s and '80s most mums still stayed at home. They didn't have au pairs, crèches or child-minders. Their children were stuck to them like limpets and getting the weekly shop done (often the only time groceries were bought) was fraught.

Feargal knew this, because he was inside their heads. He did two things: he stopped offering sweets at checkouts (I know it's a rule now, but the other supermarkets had to be dragged there, kicking and railing at their profit margins). Feargal realised mums hated the hard-sell, the hassle and the tantrums from the "can I have" toddlers.

He opened crèches in some stores. You could simply leave your kids for the hour, minded by mature, kindly mums just like yours, to draw or play.

Did some mums abuse it? Undoubtedly. Would it be allowed now? Not without an absolute raft of Tusla, gardaí, GDPR and insurance officials on top of you.

But Feargal knew instinctively, as if he were a mum, that it was a lifesaver.

It's because he knew more mums than we mums did. He walked, talked and listened to them every single day. They asked, he provided and, yes, he still made a profit. If that isn't a win-win in business, I don't know what is.

Irish Independent

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