A first for Ireland
GILLIAN HAMILL visited the first Costcutter in Ireland, Shay’s in Whitehall, Dublin, to discover what the man himself thought of his store’s most recent renovation
10 October 2008
Shay Doherty and his wife Sylvie first set up shop on Collins Avenue in Whitehall over three decades ago. One could assume that a store of its years, 36 to be exact, would be an established fixture within the local area and indeed, Shay playfully attests this to be the case.
“This grey head of mine shows it is fairly well established, yes!”
Situated on Dublin’s Northside, Whitehall has several advantages from a retailer’s perspective, being near both DCU and Dublin Airport. However, it would perhaps be most readily recognisable to readers, as being located in the vicinity of our former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s oft-reported hunting ground, Fagan’s; sharing the same postal code as the popular Drumcondra pub.
An investment in innovation
Shay and Sylvie have been careful not to take their customers’ trade for granted throughout the years however. Although Shay describes the shop as having a “very loyal customer base with three or four generations coming in”, the Dohertys have constantly innovated and invested to ensure they can deliver a genuine value proposition. After all, when Dublin city centre is a twenty-minute drive away, a shop must deliver what customers want to survive. As such, the Dohertys’ premises has witnessed several changes throughout its noteworthy lifespan.
Originally it was not one building, but two, occupying both 408 and 411 Collins Avenue. As Sylvie’s background is in catering, the couple decided to take a foray into this trade in 1985 and opened a restaurant in one of the shops. This was largely Sylvie’s domain, in fact it had the suitable moniker of Sylvie’s, and she notes that trade was “very heavy, very busy.” Although the couple eventually decided to close the restaurant with its demanding workload, its reputation has ensured the hot deli counter is now an integral part of the shop and continues to perform well.
The first Costcutter in Ireland
The Doherty’s next move was to join Vantage Wholesale in 1998 and, being first to join up, became the first Costcutter store in Ireland. The Barry group subsequently bought the Costcutter franchise in 2000, when Vantage exited the wholesale market and by this time, Shay was one of 22 members in the Costcutter group. When asked if joining Vantage was considered a bold business move, Shay replies that they basically had two options, that can be summed up by the pithy marketing maxim, ‘innovate or die!’ “We either had to get out or else spend a few bob on modernising,” says Shay, and “so we decided to knock the two into one and modernise it completely.” He notes, “We’ve been spending money ever since, but we wanted to expand our offering to the public.”
Proactive stance brings return
About eighteen months ago, the Dohertys decided to make another major investment of €1.5million in the shop. They have now installed a full off-licence, which Shay notes, “went through the courts no problem.” As the shop always had a post-office, Shay believes it now effectively offers “a one-stop shop” for the local community’s needs.
But although the family has strongly developed the business, are they worried about seeing a downturn during our current economic climate? Shay and Sylvie protest that this is not the case, noting that footfall through the store has increased since their latest substantial investment. Says John McAllen of the Barry group, “The timing of the investment was very proactive on the Dohertys’ part.The store would have come naturally to a moment in its life where it needed some reinvestment, and what they decided to do at that moment in time was, rather than doing something cosmetic, they spent a significant sum of money, and the testament to it is that they’re getting a return of increased average spend. Thankfully they’re bucking the trend from what you’d find globally.”
John also attributes the store’s success to the “clear succession planning” developed by the Dohertys in partnership with the Barry group. “There’s also a very clear plan of what’s to happen over the next 10 or 20 years in terms of the store,” adds John. Shay agrees with this assessment, noting that “Our attitude towards our job, towards family, towards everything is, we throw it on the table. We’ll work it out, and either like it or lump it, because that’s the way we deal with life, whether it be business, family or whatever; we think forward all the time.”
Family is key
Family is central to the business and it is not just Shay and Sylvie who play key roles in the store. Their daughter Hazel is the shop’s manager while another daughter, Lisa, supervises the financial aspect of the business, taking care of the books and checking.
Lisa has amassed a great deal of financial experience, having worked for 12 years at AIB, and Shay describes her role as looking after “all the back office stuff, while Hazel is more the front office out in the store; buying and fighting to get value for the people.” Lisa and Hazel’s skills compliment each other and make for a good team. “We’re lucky that the two girls are so different, they’re like chalk and cheese,” says Shay happily. Shay and Sylvie also have another son and daughter who work in Cork, but who help out with the shop when they can.
Another strength of this family team is their flexibility. Says Shay, “With the two girls if there’s someone missing in the post office they can go in and do it, they can go in and do the deli; whatever has to be done.” But as Shay says the family’s achievements at the shop have been earned through “continuous hard work, there’s no easy secret to this; it’s a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Our mainstay is really the family unit,” he adds. I
n saying that, an important part of the family’s success can be attributed to their knowledge of what works in the local area. “We have developed a certain niche for the local community, we understand it, and know that what works here, mightn’t work in another area. I know other shopkeepers that don’t bother getting into the value end of a supermarket. That’s their prerogative, but we felt it an important aspect of the business.”Shay also sells a range of hardware for the home which he notes, performs “very well.”
“We look upon this as a one stop shop and so many small hardware places have closed down; basically there’s good money in hardware, and it’s another part of the service we give here,” says Shay. “The community aspect of the store is very strong”, he adds. The store sponsors local football teams and an elderly group, and Shay smiles, “We know practically everybody coming in, good, bad and indifferent.”
A fruitful partnership
The Doherty’s knowledge of what will work well in the local area forms a beneficial partnership when coupled with the Barry group’s national knowledge and research on what works well in each category. A case in point is the wine section of the store. John notes that Barry’s is able to combine EPOS information with knowledge from key category suppliers and AC Nielsen. Together with the Doherty’s local knowledge, this allows the store to deliver a wide selection of wines that will be popular with local customers.
Shay also stocks a broad stationery range due to the store’s proximity to DCU and three or four schools in the nearby vicinity. Similarly, being located close to Beaumont hospital, the shop stocks an impressive six stands of cards, merchandised alongside wrapping paper and luxury chocolates to create the perfect opportunity for upselling. It is these sorts of initiatives which bring up the store’s bottom line, Shay and John tell me on a tour of the shop.
John reaffirms that the partnership between independent retailer and symbol group is a fruitful one. “One person would be very focused on the EPOS information, in terms of the store’s performance and we would work together,” he says. “If it’s not working then it’s time to change it.” Shay agrees, noting that the two ultimately share the same values. “We found that the Barry group were a family group as well, so we got into bed with them,” he grins, throwing in a favourite saying of his.