Plenty of retailers run more than one premises, and Paul Cotter’s Costcutter operation in Cork city, comprised of two stores in close proximity to one another, makes for a strong presence in the city. We caught up with the retailer for a chat about his business’ past, present and future
15 March 2017 | 0
PROFILE: Cotter’s Costcutter, Cork city
Size: 1,000 sq ft (both stores)
Staff: Nine full-time, six part-time spread between both stores
Having been founded there all the way back in 1955, Cork is very much home to the Barry Group. Along with Quik Pick and Carry Out, the Costcutter symbol group is a vital part of the company, and so great stock is placed in its image. For that reason, MD Jim Barry similarly puts great stock in attracting the strongest retailers to the group. One of these is Paul Cotter, who owns and operates two stores in the heart of Cork city – on Washington Street, and the city’s Grand Parade.
“I opened my first store in December 2006,” Cotter tells ShelfLife on a visit to both stores. “The previous owners were the sons of Kenny Lee, who was well-known on the Cork nightclub scene.”
For those unfamiliar, Kenny Lee is a renowned music promoter in Cork, who started his career running nightclubs in the 1980s and is now one of the organisers of Cork’s Live at the Marquee concerts, which attract some of the world’s biggest acts to the city every year.
Following a successful three years running the Washington Street store, Cotter learned of an investment opportunity when the store on Grand Parade, Cork – a short walk from his existing business – presented itself.
“I took it over from Roger Ainscough,” Cotter recalls. “The close proximity was definitely a key factor in the decision.”
Since then, both stores have gone from strength to strength, and Cotter has taken steps to turn his two stores into the family business – thought it may be some time before his offspring are in a position to take over the day-to-day operations – they are still only eight and 10 years old! “It is our family business,” he says, “though I am the first generation of it.
“My wife Maeve is currently in charge of all the HR work and the general running of the office,” he adds.
Cotter bases himself in an office at the Grand Parade store. His original office space on Washington Street was renovated and turned into a Post Office in 2008, which is now run as a separate business by Maura and Pat Downey. His full and part-time staff are generally assigned to one store, but the closeness of the two businesses means that crossover is possible, which can often save on roster hours and so on.
“If it makes financial sense to share a resource then we do,” he says, “otherwise we run both stores as separate entities”.
Cotter manages both stores himself, and pops back and forth between both several times a day. Each store has a separate deli supervisor, which helps ease the crossover workload enormously, he says.
As with any store, Cotter’s Costcutters have undergone several revamps over the past number of years. The recent work, however, is the most extensive that the stores have seen to date. “Costcutter’s project manager Chris Maguire came up with some very different ideas that look well and have worked very well in both stores,” says Cotter. “For example, we’re very pleased with the timber flooring around the bakery and coffee dock.”
New-look décor like this is indicative of the ongoing shift within convenience stores that is seeing them turn into café destinations to compete with big-name chains, rather than grab-and-go locations. The store’s main focus are its deli and bakery sections, while confectionery is a consistently strong performer, and Cotter says that there is strong competition in this area, day and night.
“There is quite a lot of competition in our part of Cork city, around the clock,” he says. “There are several convenience stores and coffee chains nearby. Then when night-time comes there are lots of takeaways and fast-food restaurants nearby.”
The key to separating oneself from this pack, he says, is in the quality of service as well as product. “We provide a very friendly and convenient service to our customers,” Cotter says. “A lot of our customers we would know by first name, while our deli is prepared fresh every day and priced very reasonably.
“I think the level of service that we aspire to and provide is reflected in the loyalty of our customers,” he adds.
A new day
As we approach the end of another decade (yes, really), it’s clear that the turbulent time that Irish business and economy went through in recent years has receded and things are looking up. That’s not to say that the shoots of recovery are anywhere close to flowering just yet. Cotter is not the only retailer to say that to us over the past year, though there is cause to be optimistic.
“The recession had a very serious impact on us, as it did for almost every business in Ireland and around the world,” says Cotter. “I think things have bottomed out, but it will still take time before we experience any meaningful improvements in the economy.
“One positive thing to come out of a recession,” he continues, “is that businesses learn to adapt by cutting any unnecessary fat in order to stay afloat.”
That’s one positive takeaway that all can say the recession inspired, either in business or personally, to keep things lean wherever possible so any eventuality can be met. “2016 was a tough year,” Cotter continues, “but we got through it. 2017 has a lot of promise now, both from my own perspective as a retailer but also the fact that I am with a fast-moving and modern retail group like the Barry Group.
“The whole team has been a huge help,” he says. “Being a family business itself really makes a difference, from Jim Barry right down through to our account manager Declan Ryan, the company has been an ideal partner for our business.”
As we have noted before in ShelfLife, there are a series of underlying issues that all retailers face. Time and time again, when we speak to a business owner, whether they’re in Cork, Carlow, Dublin or Donegal, the pressures of running a business are compounded by similar external forces. Cotter’s two stores in Cork city are no different.
“Most issues I have are the same as the next business,” he agrees. “Rates are high with no visible return. Banking fees are criminal, but I’m in the process of installing an ATM in the Grand Parade store, which will help to alleviate these fees.
“Theft is something we deal with on an almost daily basis,” he continues, “although I am confident we’re keeping it to a minimum.”
Cotter adds that begging outside his store is something that needs to be tackled as there are no bye-laws to counteract it.
As for the awards process, Cotter says that he and his stores have been a finalist in several categories and several programmes in recent years; with his stores in the shipshape they are today, he has a renewed focus on taking some home in the near future. “It’s definitely something we strive for going forward,” he says. “We know the standard is certainly very high for Costcutter’s own awards, so we’ll be aiming to compete across a range of categories this year.”