A family tradition
Martins of Fairview has a proud history spanning two generations but when it comes to product range and service, progress is a tradition in this family business
8 July 2009 | 0
Entering Martins Off-Licence, directly across from Fairview Park on Dublin’s northside, is a surprise. The shop is much larger than it first appears, running to some 60 feet deep. On closer inspection, the visitor is further surprised at the depth and range of the beers, wines, spirits, and knowledge on offer.
While all of this may be a surprise to the passing customer, the locals know and appreciate what’s on their doorstep. The feeling is mutual, as Declan Martin also knows and appreciates his customers. This relationship has been built over two generations, as his father, Tom Martin, first took over the outlet some 32 years ago. While it may have been his first retail business the industry wasn’t new to him, having worked as a sales representative for Irish Distillers for several years.
The new venture was not short of expertise either as his wife, Kathleen Martin, an accountant by profession, provided the financial management to make the enterprise a success and continues to maintain the books today.Now however, Tom Martin has gradually stepped back to allow his son to take the reins, since he joined the business full-time eight years ago.
Having spent some years travelling in the United States and Australia, Declan Martin returned home in 2001. Although the intervening period is only a quarter of his father’s time in the business, he has managed to put his stamp on the shop, while building on his father’s earlier developments. Martin is very aware of his family’s place in his local community and is proud to carry on a family business where he has the opportunity to get to know his customers and they to know him.
Valuable mixed trade
Martins benefits from a mixed trade, with a strong corporate strand based on local businesses which becomes “a big thing at Christmas.” Otherwise, the store has a substantial local trade whereby Martin gets to know his customers personally. While many of his wine customers “prefer to stick to their old favourites,” they have become more knowledgeable and adventurous and welcome the guidance and advice on offer. “They rely on our recommendation and are happy to go by our judgement.”
However, it is the beer trade that has been the most interesting aspect of this business in recent years, now accounting for 40% of the turnover. Although the outlet carried a good range of branded beers as well as a selection of world beers, the existing four-door cooler didn’t offer enough space to keep enough chilled beers available.
This was the principal motivation behind recent renovations to the shop, expanding the retail space to 1,000 sq ft and providing an additional five-metre, six-door, cold room. The outlet now boasts a six-door cold room of branded beers, leaving the original four-door cooler to accommodate the range of almost 200 world beers. A warm afternoon in June provides testament to the wisdom of this development as customer after customer makes use of these facilities for multiple-purchases
The renovations also allowed Martin to move the counter to the rear of the shop, encouraging customers to move further into the retail space and providing space to browse. While wanting to modernise in certain ways, he was very aware of the value of what had already been established. With this in mind, the new layout incorporated the traditional style of the original shop, including the timber shelving, the traditional signage and the distinctive hanging lantern lighting.
While recognising the value of the traditional image of the shop, Martin was careful to take advantage of current best practice in retailing, including the best use of lighting. Alongside the traditional lanterns, he installed effective, low-energy lighting. This has maintained the traditional look of the shop but substantially increased the lighting level throughout the outlet.
The renovated shop has prompted a “fresh start” for the business. Martin is considering an annual wine fair, with the proceeds going to the local school. “We want to give something back to the local community,” particularly as the enhanced outlet represents somewhat of a handover of the business to the next generation. The renovations have also given Martin a new perspective on the business. “A whole new look, a lease of life, a new beginning; it all prompts you to try and improve in lots of other ways.”
The move saw the introduction of several new lines, including fresh flowers, cards and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Any doubts Martin had about the benefits of such diversification have since been dispelled. The day before ShelfLife visited the shop, one particular customer was delighted to find, en route to a birthday party, that he could buy the champagne, chocolates, flowers and greeting card that he needed in a single location.
Taking a fresh approach
Martin’s fresh approach is also evident in other parts of the shop. A substantial range of organic wines is highlighted on the traditional shelves. Nearby a range of wines from Fair Wind Wines form a special display. Martin explains their inclusion as “an extra selling point” and, speaking about the Fair Wind Wines, said that it was “good to see someone doing something different.”
The company provides wines that have been produced and distributed with the least possible impact on the environment. Getting these French wines to Ireland under sail ensures a 77% reduction in the carbon footprint compared to the usual commercial delivery methods. As far as Declan Martin is concerned, “It’s a positive concept and not everyone is doing it”.
Although Tom Martin was a member of the National Off-Licence Association “since the early days,” it was only recently that Declan was prompted to become more involved in the association and join the National Council in March of this year. He believes that it is important “to be actively involved in the industry” in as much as possible. While he admits that it does take some commitment, “you get to be the first to know about things, and the first to act”.
For Martin, the importance of NOffLA has increased as the impact of the recession starts to bite. “We have to make our voice heard…particularly in these difficult times,” he says comparing the size of one small independent outlet with a local multi-national supermarket chain. Martin also appreciates the promotional opportunities afforded through NOffLA’s associate members. While he admits that “the promotions can vary, there is always at least one offer that is really worth taking up” in any particular month.
NOffLA also provided Martins with the opportunity to enter the Off-Licence of the Year. Although they had previously entered several years ago, it was for last year’s awards (2009) that the shop achieved an excellence award. Martin found the experience very worthwhile and saw it as being “about trying to benchmark yourself against the best.”
“Each year you see many of the same shops winning. You know that they’re good and you wonder how far off are we from these guys?” Martin is looking forward to this year’s judging as he attempts to gauge the impact of the revamp of the shop on their performance in the awards scheme.
For Declan Martin, the current difficult trading environment for the independent off-licence sector has been created by poor government decisions. “The availability of alcohol has become too widespread, too easily, too quickly. Petrol stations shouldn’t sell alcohol.”
His frustration borne of a professional approach to his trade is obvious. “We are independent specialists, who have knowledge of our business and a responsibility to go with it. We’re not interested in selling nappies or milk. We sell alcohol, that is what we do and we can do it properly if we’re given the chance. You won’t get that in a supermarket or petrol station. We have to try to protect our trade and our livelihood.”
Martin takes the policy of Responsible Trading in the Community seriously. Several younger-looking customers purchased alcohol while ShelfLife visited the shop. Each customer was asked for ID, politely and discretely in each instance. Garda Age Cards and passports were examined. Although one of these young men was 20 years of age, and a regular customer, he is always asked for his identification, as much to let other customers know the standards in operation as to let the young man himself know where Declan Martin stands.
Looking to the future, Declan Martin admits to harbouring a dream of opening a tapas bar; providing a relaxed venue that would include a nice selection of wines and some good world beers. In the meantime, he is preparing for the more immediate challenges that lie ahead for Martins and the other independent off-licences in Ireland. He admits that “the biggest challenge is competing against the supermarkets,” but that cross border shopping, particularly at weekends and bank holidays, is having an impact too.
“When preparing for parties and barbeques people plan that trip up north.” Declan sees the impact also with some of his regular customers. “Customers refer to prices they have seen in the north and you can also see imported beers at house parties. “The problem is made worse as the supermarkets attempt to match the cross-border prices, increasing the pressure on local prices. Hopefully, we’ll have a good summer as the good weather keeps people local. Nobody wants to spend two hours in a car in fine weather.”
If the summer weather is as good as we hope it will be, ShelfLife can recommend a chilled beer from a cooler opposite Fairview Park.