The cat’s whiskers
The Kilkenny cats aren’t just winners when it comes to hurling. With a recent €1.5 million investment in the local Value Centre, they have a winning facility right on their doorstep
11 February 2009 | 0
A positive outlook on the current economic climate is becoming an increasingly rare thing.
However Kilkenny Value Centre manager Ian Cousins has adopted a refreshing stance.
With his store having undergone a complete renovation during the last two years, this was a period of adjustment not without its challenges.
Nevertheless, the team at Kilkenny managed to grow business by over 60%.
"If you listen to the radio, it’s so negative and depressing; you’ve got to try and look at the positives," says Cousins. "One of the huge things we would say here is that over the last two years, we’ve experienced massive change and it’s been a tough two years.
"But our level of new business grew by 60%, which is an incredible feat. We don’t expect the same level this year, but anticipate double digit growth. We’ve shown that when under pressure we could do it."
Confident not complacent
The centre is the only cash and carry in Kilkenny city, as its main competitor closed two and a half years ago. It does, however, face competition from surrounding counties. So would Ian be worried if another wholesaler was to move into the city itself?
"There have been rumours about different wholesalers moving into the area, but there’s a reason why they’re not here. We have the service, and our pricing is second to none. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, but it would be very difficult for them to establish themselves. Kilkenny people are very loyal."
Cousins is confident, not complacent however. "We wouldn’t sit back and let anyone take business from us. We are very pro-active and the competition can see that. It’s not a case of us having to react."
The bottom line
In fact, in the current credit-crunched times, he sees the Value Centre’s strong pricing strategies as offering a distinct advantage.
"Our national and local offers are both very strong; pricing for us is not an issue. In fact it’s the thing that will make us. No matter whether you’re a hotelier, publican or retailer, everyone is looking at their bottom line."
Cousins notes that this renewed focus on price has generated another key trend; Value Centre own brand products are becoming increasingly popular.
"Customers were maybe reluctant about own brand in the past and thought of it as lower end but now they see that the quality is second to no label brand."
He views this as an important tool in helping local retailers compete against larger multiples and discounters such as Lidl and Aldi moreover.
On the road
But while price is a key factor for customers during recessionary times, a good delivery service will always impact favourably on a wholesaler’s reputation.
Cousins believes that this is where the store’s flexibility and dedication really pays off.
"We have two vans on the road full-time. We deliver in Kilkenny city everyday of the week, and also do a country run-on delivery to Laois and Tipperary, where customers would typically have one delivery a week. In town runs, people would usually have one or two deliveries a week, but we could accommodate them with three or four deliveries if they needed it."
Maintaining customer satisfaction is essential for Cousins, so he’s prepared to go the extra mile to help someone out.
"If on Tuesday or Wednesday a retailer is short something, we won’t let them down, we’ll get the product to them. In the current environment, you can’t take a chance over one product; if you let a customer down and they go elsewhere, the competition gets a foot in the door. That’s how we won a lot of our business."
An advantageous location
With the current near parity between the euro and sterling however, I ask if he has been affected by customers heading north in recent months? "I know of one or two customers who have," he replies.
"Obviously, it’s not as bad for us as wholesalers in the Northern region as there’s a greater distance to travel. I’ve seen [wholesale] prices in the North and we are still quite comparable. When you add in delivery charges and the cost of getting up there, it makes more sense to shop locally."
Of course, extra distance from the border isn’t the only advantage Kilkenny offers as a location. For starters, it’s a tourist hub.
"Kilkenny is extremely strong on tourism; the tourism board and chamber of commerce do an excellent job of promoting Kilkenny," says Cousins. However, from talking to customers, he believes booking numbers "might be down slightly from January to March." On the other hand, he suspects that due to new hotels being built, the figures are "probably just levelling off."
"But it is very hard to get a hotel room in Kilkenny anyway. You go out any Saturday night and there’s plenty of evidence for that, in fact it can be hard to find a person from Kilkenny," he jokes, adding proudly that, "It’s a buzzing town with a great party atmosphere."
The Value Centre has certainly benefited from this strong tourist trade. Says Cousins: "During the re-vamp we increased space on catering by 300%. We see a further increase in the future and look on this as a growth area for the store."
Drinking in success
While tourism in Kilkenny is still going strong though, has the Value Centre been affected by the increasing number of closures of rural pubs, hit strongly by the drink driving ban? "It’s definitely evident," he responds. "In the last 12 months, some rural pubs have closed down, and we’ve lost a number of them, but a lot of them haven’t closed.
For villages with five pubs, where the population would be very small, it’s hard to see how they would all keep going in any case."
But while Cousins says that he lost some customers to closures, his on-trade sales actually fared relatively well. He explains: "Especially around Christmas, publicans order directly from suppliers. However they are finding they can’t meet minimum deliveries, and so are coming in to buy smaller quantities from us."
And with ‘staying in’ increasingly becoming the new ‘going out’, his off-trade categories are also performing well. "Value Centre offers great pricing on beers for off-trade and are very competitive in that area."
And whether the customer is a publican, retailer or caterer, the store is laid out to make it easy for them to find what they need, with dedicated areas for each sector.
Says Cousins: "Together with the head office regional manager and project manager, we put a lot of thought into the store’s design. The new warehouse is customer friendly, very bright and spacious with plenty of room, with a good flow to it; it’s geared towards the retailer."
Cousins also does his part to make it as easy for customers as possible. With a background in sales before joining BWG; when asked what his favourite aspect of the job is, he replies:
"It sounds like a cliché, but I like dealing with customers. I enjoy the actual trading part; doing deals. We are flexible, and will do our damndest to get it at that [the best] price for customers – I suppose that ties into my own background in sales."
During his time in sales at Stafford Lynch, Kilkenny Value Centre was one of his stops, and through his role there, he felt he knew a lot about the wholesale business. When the store’s previous manager retired, he decided to go for it and is delighted that BWG recognised his potential at a crucial time of expansion.
Real staff commitment
He has found training to be high on BWG’s agenda since he came onboard in July 2007. "I’ve participated in a number of courses that benefited me personally, and the company in terms of the job I do, such as people and time management courses."
Training is also an important priority for his staff, who he says are excellent. "We have a team of 10 staff. They’ve been brilliant the last two years, I don’t think we could have achieved what we did without their patience. There was a lot of disruption, and without their commitment we wouldn’t have succeeded. There wasn’t one person that didn’t play a massive part in that."
And staff are certainly loyal to the store also. One employee Martin Broaders has been working there for 32 years. When he started in 1972, the store was a small independent called Cumins’.
Another staff member, Mary has also worked there close to 18 years. It was therefore fitting that this store with a history, created quite a splash at its official opening in September. Seven Liam McCarthy cups graced the store, along with hurlers Richie Power and Tommy Walsh. "It was a great family day," says Cousins, with face painters, a magician and customer and staff draws keeping everyone entertained.
Cousins plans to ensure the store’s continued success in the future, with an excellent safety guard; he knows his loyal customers will be quick to tell him if something’s not right. "We’ve had a brilliant reaction from customers since the official opening in September, when we opened a number of new accounts…And our customers would be quite honest.
"If there’s an issue there, they would tell us. It’s something I want to hear, tell me if there’s a problem, because it’s better than us not being aware of it. We pride ourselves on that."