Irish shops get a stamp of approval

The Best Shops judges are on the road, choosing winners from a shortlist of 100 shops; An Post launches a new series of stamps celebrating Irish shopfronts

The Winding Stair in Dublin and Vibes & Scribes in Cork are on 72 cent stamps while Clerke, a grocer in Skibbereen and Thomas Moran, a hardware and faming shop in Westport, Co Mayo feature on the €1.10 stamp.

The Winding Stair in Dublin and Vibes & Scribes in Cork are on 72 cent stamps while Clerke, a grocer in Skibbereen and Thomas Moran, a hardware and faming shop in Westport, Co Mayo feature on the €1.10 stamp.

 

Notepads and cameras at the ready, the judges are out on the road visiting the 100 stores on this year’s Best Shops shortlist. The winners will be announced on August 27th

Heritage shops have proved a big hit with readers with several making this year’s shortlist. Inspired by the competition An Post is celebrating some of the nation’s distinctive shop fronts with a new stamp collection. The Winding Stair in Dublin and Vibes & Scribes in Cork are on 72 cent stamps while Clerke, a grocer in Skibbereen and Thomas Moran, a hardware and faming shop in Westport, Co Mayo feature on the €1.10 stamp.

While a pretty shopfront is a bonus, the Best Shops judges are looking for a combination of qualities from contenders - they’re looking for the great stock imaginatively displayed, innovation, and impeccable service. This year, they are all happy to report that business, after years of struggling, is pretty good.

The competition, borne out of a need to give shopkeepers a helping hand back in 2012 when shopping was flat-lining and teetering on the brink of mortality. Many experts had already called time on the leisure activity.

And indeed many shops did close their doors. But in other instances entrepreneurs have seen potential and many more opened theirs. Stand out shops survived and flourished.

Shopping as a leisure activity has made a very slow but steady recovery and, if feedback from the judges and secret shoppers is anything to go by, there is a confidence returning to the sector both in Dublin an outside the Pale.

The recession made the consumer realise that if we didn’t buy local then we wouldn’t have any local shops to service our towns and villages. The resulting pride in championing our own has led to a renaissance in independent shopkeeping with new retailers setting out their stalls across the land.

This is the third year that Simon Pratt, MD of Avoca, has sat on competition’s judging panel. He says post recession Ireland has is grown a new breed of food shops and cafes in towns all across the country. “It is no longer the preserve of our bigger cities to find a carefully curated store or cafe with a well considered interior that is championing local and artisan produce or making great coffee.” Set-up by young entrepreneurs who are well-travelled these people are building a new sense of community around their enterprises. “They also raising the standard of Irish retailing in towns all across the country in a way never seen before. They espouse a particular choice of lifestyle and are attracting like-minded people as customers and in doing so provide a welcome alternative to the pub as a place for people to meet.”

Independent consultant Eddie Shanahan is similarly excited. “Retailers are striving to improve the experience through point of difference, their stock selection, the way it is merchandised and adding other services to the mix.”

After losing a lot of customers during the downturn it remains an ongoing struggle to beguile consumers enough for them to part with their money.

Sadly, some still struggle with this, Shanahan says. Far too often he walks into a premises where no-one bother to greet him. “A simple hello is all anyone is looking for when they enter a shop and yet far too many are still too busy to give this greeting.”

It’s a pet hate of all the judges. “You want to be acknowledged but then left alone to browse. Being followed round the shop by someone tidying up in your wake is simply bad for business,” explains Deirdre McQuillan, fashion editor at The Irish Times.

John Redmond, creative director at the Brown Thomas group, has been really heartened by how much more interesting many of the shops the he visited look. With Irish shoppers spending more than E6.5 million per day online, according to a 2014 survey by internet shopping service Nightline, retailers have had to up their game. “Individuality is key to standing out,” he says.

The rising number of similar-looking spaces – those with the hipster aesthetic of metro tiles, industrial furniture, stripped floors, Edison bulbs and that same shade of grey what Shanahan calls “cookie cutter” is a bone of contention with all the judges. This isn’t just an Irish thing – it’s happening everywhere and making far-flung destinations feel depressingly familiar. “On the flip side what this homogeneity does do is make a shop that has a real sense of its own style command your attention,” Redmond says.

The winners of Best Shops 2016, backed by AIB, will be announced on Saturday, August 27th.

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