The small Irish shops battling multinationals for your Christmas euros

Local businesses face many challenges, but none so big as the gun metal grey and blue vans with the Amazon swoosh that have been criss-crossing the country in recent weeks

It is a crisp winter’s morning and this writer is standing in a former clothes shop on St Stephen’s Green, trying to figure out a hideously complex game under the watchful – and perhaps slightly judgemental – gaze of teacher-turned toy woman Ruth Roberts, and her business partner brother Conor Brady.

We are in Cogs Toys and Games, the brain child of the brother and sister and their cousin Alan Condon. Given the time of day, the shop floor is quiet so there are no distractions to blame for the time it takes me to finish the IQ puzzler – an abstract game not unlike Tetris in physical form.

Roberts commends me when I put the last piece of the puzzle in and I breath a sigh of relief while suspecting she is being more kind than truthful. As a woman who has been selling a mix of brain challenging games and sensory toys designed to calm minds, alongside a growing collection of more traditional toys and games sourced, where possible, from Ireland, she could surely complete the puzzle much, much faster than I have.

The family affair started a decade ago with the siblings and their cousin opening a small shop upstairs in the St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre so they could sell a few dozen toys aimed at sharpening minds.

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Since those early days, the enterprise has kept growing, and Cogs now stocks a huge number of old-school board games such as Monopoly and Risk, as well as more cutting edge games, puzzles and toys that aim to be entertaining, engaging and challenging for children, their parents and their grandparents..

In October they opened a pop-up in what used to be an Oasis outlet on St Stephen’s Green. Roberts and Brady are both acutely aware that this leap of faith they have taken could cost them dearly.

They have been watching the sales numbers anxiously since the start of November, and know they need to have a good season or else it could be game over.

The pop-up is, Roberts says, “a risk” with the rent as high as you might expect for that part of town.

“My friend said to me we must be absolutely flying it to be able to get the pop-up here but it’s almost a case that we have to get it,” she says. “This is our busiest time of the year, and the whole year is focused on these few weeks. They determine whether we make money or not.”

We have to price the absolute bare minimum we can to make profit, because we’re so keenly aware customers are so price sensitive

—  Ruth Roberts, Cogs the Brain Shop

Sometimes things can be hairy.

“We check things every single day,” Roberts explains. “We had a few shaky days at the start of November, but things picked up after that. There was [a] wobble there for a few days, and I had some sickening feelings going to bed at night.”

Things are brighter now, although she knows there are battles still to come.

A shop like Cogs faces many challenges, but none so big as the gun metal grey and blue vans with the Amazon swoosh that have been criss-crossing the country in recent weeks, crossing paths with the vans from An Post, DPD, Fastway and all the other courier companies delivering products arriving from across the world, soon to find their way under Christmas trees and into stockings.

More than half the money Irish people will spend between today and the Big Day will go straight into the coffers of giant multinational retailers, with almost all of that cash set to simply vanish off our little island forever.

Some of the online platforms and shops people are planning to use do have a solid physical footprint in Ireland, others make much fainter impressions when it comes to taxes paid and people employed here, while some make no such impression at all.

And we are not talking small change. Last year about €6.5 billion was spent online by Irish shoppers, with more than half going to overseas retailers.

The three or four billion euro we give to these retailers might have otherwise been worth €10 billion to the Irish economy when the multiplier effect is taken into account. Money spent locally more than doubles because it ends up circulating widely and gets spent again on locally-sourced goods and services and wages, which can then also be spent again locally.

While Dave’s Dicey Deals based in a dodgy warehouse in a country 5,000km away might be able to sell you the stuff you want for less than a shop closer to home, the inescapable reality is that what you are buying today might ultimately come at a much higher price tomorrow. If we shopped online with international players like Dave all the time to get everything for the lowest possible price, our local retailers would quickly disappear, leaving us all the poorer as a result.

But by shopping locally – at least some of the time – in the run up to Christmas, people can show solidarity with their neighbours, keep money in the country and stop our cities, towns and even villages suffering at the hands of globalisation and the merciless forces of borderless commerce. You might even find some amazing value, and better quality stuff made much closer to home.

“The only reason we’re here is because people have made the conscious decision to shop Irish and shop local,” Roberts says.

“It can be so easy to just go on to Amazon, and a lot of people default to that mindset. People don’t often think that there’s an Irish alternative to what you’re buying, but some do, and without those people who consciously decide to shop with us, we would not be here. It is that simple.”

Roberts says her shop has to be “so price sensitive” given the intensity of the competition. “If someone searches for a toy and we’re €10 or €5 more expensive, they’re not going to shop with us. That means that every time we price something, we have to price the absolute bare minimum we can to make profit, because we’re so keenly aware customers are so price sensitive and everything is so transparent online. There are some products that we simply can’t stock, because the prices they sell for online are cheaper than the price we pay wholesale.”

Her brother nods as she talks. “If we were too expensive, we would literally be a showroom for Amazon,” Brady says.

When they decided to go into business together – despite having no retail background – the siblings admit they were a bit clueless. Brady had previously worked for an estate agents and Roberts was a teacher.

And who came up with the notion?

“It was both of our ideas,” Roberts says, as Brady shakes his head.

“I think Ruth was more the driving force, because she saw the need for the products we sell more than I did.”

The shop has super smart games and a very strong offering for children who are neurodivergent and have additional needs.

“We were so green starting out,” Roberts says. “We had the shop divided by visual perception, critical thinking and memory, but then someone would come in and say I want a game for a three-year-old.” So, they had to reimagine it.

Cogs has come a long way since then, and while they sell most of the mainstream games you might be familiar with, the shelves of the pop-up also feature a lot of games that will make you think.

They have also moved online in a big way since the pandemic forced their hand, and this Christmas as much as 70 per cent of their business will be done online, Roberts says.

“We have a new warehouse and that has been transformational, and we offer same day delivery in Dublin and next day delivery everywhere else in the country. It used to be that people found the website from the shop. Now they’re finding the shop from the website,” Brady adds.

As we talk, an event that could see some toys fly of the shelves is just hours away. Roberts is more excited than any child about the looming Late Late Toy Show. She has been dealing with the show’s researchers for weeks, and has talked them through some of the best toys this year.

“The Toy Show has been really good to us in the past,” she says. “You’re not guaranteed to get anything on, and they might give a selection of toys to a child and it’s whatever they are actually interested in. If we get something shown you’ll hear me screaming and my kids screaming and my husband screaming all over the estate. It is huge for a small independent [to] get something on.”

Sometimes she has got agonisingly close to pay dirt. “One year we had one of our best selling products called Stomp Rocket, and it was all laid out on the set, and Ryan [Tubridy] was leading the kid over to play with it and they got distracted and went somewhere else. So that can happen too.”

The next few weeks will be crazy for Cogs, with the siblings set to work seven days a week from dawn to dusk and beyond.

But the work is not the biggest challenge. “Finding a permanent physical shop is what we have been struggling to do for the last year. A pop-up is great, but it’s a huge amount of work, setting it up for a short number of weeks and it is a bit higgledy piggledy,” Roberts says.

“It would be great if we could get a really nice permanent unit and set it up really nicely. Ideally that would be in Dublin’s new Toy Quarter.” – It is more of a toy triangle with the three points being Cogs, Lego and the Disney shop.

“They have definitely helped in bringing in younger families.”

Less than a kilometre away, in the Irish Design Shop on Drury Street, Clare Grennan and Laura Caffrey take a break from making jewellery to take me on a tour of their sweet smelling shop.

The essential oils that make the place smell so great are Irish. In fact, “everything is Irish designed and made,” Grennan says. “We have the work of nearly 100 makers here, and we’re makers ourselves.”

Shoppers staying local is what has kept the lights on and made the street a special place over the last decade or so, she says.

“We started our business during the recession in 2008. People really wanted to support local business because things were so tough, and then that happened again during the pandemic. But even with that solidarity, people will not come back again and again unless you have nice products,” Grennan explains.

“You need to keep it fresh, and we want to have products that you can only get here or else direct from that maker.”

Caffrey nods enthusiastically. “And it is not just us. If you think about the knock-on effects from selling something here. It simply means the person who makes it can keep doing it,” Caffrey says.

“And from the start it was really important to us that everything we sell comes from Ireland,” Grennan says. “All our printing is done in Dublin, and if we get stock in from somebody who works in Kerry, that keeps them going and they can carry on doing their craft and that’s so important for the village where they are, you know?”

The shop is quiet on this midweek morning, but on the top floor the packers are busy sorting orders using ethically sourced and recyclable packaging materials, which includes a paper alternative to bubble wrap to keep ceramics safe from harm.

December 23rd will be the shop’s busiest day of the year. “And it is a Saturday so we are getting prepared mentally and physically,” Grennan says. “It is hard work, but we do love to see those last minute shoppers.”

Across the Liffey in Project 29 in Stoneybatter, Veronica Walsh is getting geared up for the most wonderful – and stressful – time of year. “It’s so important people support local businesses. If people don’t shop local, the local shops won’t be here next year,” Walsh says.

For her small shop which sells toys, books, jewellery, lights, funky disco balls and a whole lot more besides, the next three weeks are essential. “What happens in the days ahead will set us up for the whole year really, and if it goes well it [will] allow us to get new products in and get ready for next year. I’d say about 80 per cent of our stock is Irish, and a lot of it is from Dublin. I don’t think Amazon will miss a few sales,” Walsh says.

She set up the shop more than two years ago after the Temple Bar pub her husband Robbie ran closed during Covid times.

Project 29 in Stoneybatter

“I’d wanted to do this a long time and then Covid happened. Before then he’d been working crazy hours for 20 years, and he realised how tired he was and how he was not around when the kids were little. I always wanted to do this, and he took a massive leap of faith and we did it together,” Walsh explains.

A mother of young children herself, she appreciates that people are always going to shop with the biggest players with cheaper prices, but stresses that every little helps, and even if some spending is diverted to small independent retailers it can make a big difference.

“It’s all about supporting each other, supporting your community,” Walsh says.

I can’t help it, our customers have become our friends over the years and we have grown together, as have our families

—  Sharon Griffin, Ooh! By Gum

On the other side of the country in Clifden, Co Galway, Sharon Griffin is also gearing her delightfully named Ohh By Gum! clothes and gift shop up for the Christmas season. She is similarly grateful for the support of her local community.

“I am passionate about advocating local shopping and businesses,” Griffin says. “It is so important for job creation, the local economy, and the personal connections it fosters.”

She points out that she is “the final link in the supply chain”, and shops like hers “provide the crucial personal connection to customers”.

“We believe retail is not just an isolated transaction but a personal experience, where we listen and offer expert advice, personalised service, and have a deeper understanding of our customers’ needs and preferences. We know who had a baby, what they have already received as a gift and what the parents favour,” Griffin says.

The shop does not just sell new stock, it also offers the people of Clifden a platform to re-sell clothes they no longer wear through its Re-Wear scheme. “This takes the burden of dealing with old clothes that to them have a value and they aren’t really ready to donate them to charity where they often get mixed up with cheap, fast fashion items that don’t quite have the hanger appeal that their cherished pieces do,” she says.

“They can either donate their proceeds to our local playschool building fund, or use it when they next need to purchase something from us.”

Shopping locally “offers an essential social outlet, enhancing community connection and contributing to mental wellbeing”, Griffin says.

“It is a therapeutic break from the digital world, providing a sense of belonging and community involvement. We love a good old chit chat in OBG (Ooh! By Gum), and I am probably the worst for it! But I can’t help it, our customers have become our friends over the years and we have grown together, as have our families.”