Extreme measures

Many retailers were faced with loss of stock due to flooding
Many retailers were faced with loss of stock due to flooding

Retailers readily accepted the challenges posed by the cold snap and a more heart-warming consequence was that it highlighted the importance of the local store.



17 February 2010

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snowThe coldest January generally since 1985 and in the Dublin area since 1963, wreaked havoc across the country’s roads. In fact, Michael Fitzgerald, chairman of the Department of Transport and the Association of County and City Councils has claimed that the repair bill to fix Ireland’s rural roads reaches a staggering €1 billion. While potholes may be a lingering legacy of our by now infamous cold snap however, a more positive heritage according to RGDATA chief executive Tara Buckley is that the recent extreme conditions highlighted the importance of the local community shop.

Frozen revenues

But that is not to say retailers didn’t feel the icy pangs of the freeze in their pocket. According to Buckley, some retailers, particularly those in town centres with either convenience stores or supermarkets that customers could walk to, actually found business was up. On the other hand, “rural shops situated on secondary and smaller roads, certainly experienced difficulty with access,” and “some disruption in supplies.” 

One man who experienced at first hand the problems caused by the Government’s lack of gritting on secondary roads is XL development manager Thomas McAree. Covering the whole of the north west, including Donegal, Mayo and Sligo, he was in a prime position to see the extent to which rural retailers were affected. Indeed, he comments: “Even for myself, to try and get out and about was extremely difficult and dangerous at times.” 

One XL store he works with in rural Donegal was forced to temporarily let staff go for two weeks, as a result of impassable roads. A severe situation, “not only for the shop, but obviously for the staff at that time of the year, just after Christmas. It certainly had a major impact on their income as well.”

And while other rural stores managed to stay open, footfall was naturally down. “Basically unless people had 4X4 vehicles, they weren’t able to get to the shop,” says McAree.

Without water

What’s more, burst water pipes created further mayhem. In fact, Dublin City Council was forced to produce 634 million litres of expensively treated water to meet demand, which according to chief sanitary services engineer Brian Smyth was “the highest in history.” But if customers think managing a household without water is challenging, coping without in a store is a yet more arduous task. Thomas McAree noted one shop in Roscommon had no water for five days and so had to close its deli. Buckley also reports a retailer with three forecourts in Enniscorthy decided to close the deli at one of his stores because he was concerned about meeting health and safety standards. And in a knock-on affect, another retailer in Howth reported a shortage of bottled water supplies to meet high demand.   

In one sense however, the timing of Ireland’s foray into an Artic-like climate was fortuitous. As McAree points out, after the peak Christmas season, shops were more likely to have “sufficient stocks in store.” Nevertheless, in an illustration of the lengths suppliers went to fulfil orders, he found that on the worst affected mornings, that “the only people I was meeting on the roads were delivery men.”

He also highlighted the sustained effort made by BWG’s Value Centre to keep stores stocked. “From the Value Centre, the lorries got out wherever they could. Depending on where it was and what vehicle had to be used, they certainly did their upmost to get deliveries out to people whenever they could.”

Keeping shelves stocked

Buckley likewise reported that many RGDATA members “commended” suppliers on their efforts to help keep shelves full, despite some rural retailers missing out on deliveries such as bread and milk during Christmas week. She notes one instance where “the bread man was given a great pat on the back, after taking ages to try and manoeuvre himself to the shop and eventually getting there.”  And in some cases retailers literally went ‘the extra mile’ or even more, to ensure they stayed stocked by going to meet deliveries along the road.  

They also went above and beyond to help those within the local community. The team at Singletons’ SuperValu in Holly Hill, Co Cork actually delivered free bottles of water to all the homes in the surrounding area affected by the water stoppage. Another striking example is that of Liam Ryan’s SuperValu in Glanmire, Co Cork, where Ryan delivered free bags of grit to the housing estates in his surrounding area.  

Retailers also took it upon themselves to increase their home deliveries to those worst affected by the conditions. “They were aware of elderly customers who were snowed in, or were concerned about leaving the house and walking on slippery footpaths, so decided to bring deliveries to them,” says Buckley. “Community spirit and the value of having local shops where people knew you, so could phone up and ask for something, was really appreciated.” Several Gala retailers commented that they certainly found this to be the case, such as Emma O’Brien, of Gala Holly’s Moyvane in Listowel, Co. Kerry. “We increased the number of home deliveries and called on customers who could not make it to the store, to ensure they had fuel and groceries,” says O’Brien.

Community service

Siobhan Larkin, of Gala Ballina, in Kilaloe, Co .Tipperary says she also ensured none of the store’s more vulnerable customers went without, by “checking on our more elderly customers via phone calls or calling to their homes.” And Ger Dunne of Gala Emmet Stores Mountmellick, Co. Laois likewise rang customers daily, “taking shopping orders and doing home deliveries.”  

Brian and Pat Dolan, Gala Clara Road, Tullamore, Co. Offaly, noted they ensured their forecourt was well salted on a daily basis and all access routes to the store were open and safe for customers during the big freeze. Brian Dolan explained that as the forecourt opens very early, they were able to help customers with their fuel requirements, window scrapers and de-icer, to combat the weather conditions, as well as running a promotion on firelogs and firelighters.  

What is more, while the local area suffered from water shortages, Dolan managed to source additional five litre bottled water through 4 Aces wholesale, to help local customers out.  

Retailers therefore certainly made the extra effort to serve their communities, and as Gala’s Siobhan Larkin points out, this also involved such seemingly small steps such as reassuring customers that the store would be open that day “and eliminating any uncertainty, by opening very early every day and checking that all basic supplies were readily available.” Tara Buckley reports many shop owners also praised staff “for doing things above and beyond the call of duty, making their way to work on foot, and also getting involved and clearing paths. In general, there’s a lot of extra work involved in a shop when there’s snow and ice outside in terms of keeping the store safer for customers.

Banking on pain

However, while “everyone else in the community pulled together,” one sector which attracted some negative comment was the banking community. According to Buckley, “Some retailers did experience a downturn in business, which had an immediate impact on their cash flow and they felt there was no sympathy from the banks to their predicament.” Several shop owners “complained that their banks didn’t make any changes, or didn’t make any allowances for dips in sales due to the bad weather or water shortages –circumstances beyond their control.” And unfortunately, the recent announcement of Halifax’s departure from the Irish market is likely to exacerbate this situation. In fact, the retreat marks a “disaster” for SMEs, according to consumers affairs expert Eddie Hobbs. “When you lose competition like that, the other banks get lazier and greedier. With Halifax retreating, negotiating with the other banks will only get tougher," he commented.  

It will also come as cold comfort to retailers that theirs was not the only business to suffer during the cold snap. The NCB Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), which measures Irish manufacturing activity, fell to 48.1 from 48.8 in November and December. According to the report, freezing conditions in the early weeks of the year exacerbated falling demand, which led to the sharpest reduction in production in five months. Furthermore, with less Southern shoppers heading north, business activity there fell at its fastest rate in seven months. More comforting statistics (proving stockists could keep up with demand) came in the form of sales surges in goods including salt, firelogs, soups and bottled water. Superquinn for example, tripled sales of salt during the first week in January compared to the same period last year, and sold 40% more firelogs and firelighters. Tesco meanwhile reported salt sales increased by 90% during the final fortnight of December, while firelogs and firelighters were up 150%.  

And of course, the importance of highlighting the role of the local shop – where, as Buckley points out, “the owners are in the shop, working with their customers to deliver what they want” – cannot be underestimated. In fact, this prompted Musgrave to place a full page ad in The Irish Examiner, thanking its retail partners, staff and customers for their support over the cold spell.” This may well prove a more crucial, heart-warming message as the climate of economic discontent continues.



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