Ireland’s SMEs have shown incredible resilience and flexibility over the years. One wonders how some of them are still standing, having endured some of the toughest times and inclement conditions known in the business.
It is a testament to their endurance and ingenuity that they have survived the invasion of foreign high-street multiples; the might of online shopping; and a couple of recessions.
Dubray Books is a dynamic Irish bookstore with an instantly recognisable brand and an enviable rapport with both its staff and customers. How has it kept itself at the cutting edge of book-buying in Ireland?
"There is a great atmosphere on the shop floor and our staff love to interact with the customers to find out the kind of books and topics they are interested in purchasing," explains Dubray managing director Maria Dickenson.
“All the bookshops are particularly comfortable, cosy havens where our customers feel welcome to sit down or browse the titles to their heart’s content.”
Customers love our book launches and the opportunity to meet their favourite author or listen to an up-and-coming writer sharing their advice
The first book shop was set up 44 years ago in Bray, Co Wicklow, by Helen Clear. In 1988, she sold it to her daughter Gemma and her late husband Kevin Barry, who expanded in the 1990s, opening shops in Grafton Street, Rathmines and Kilkenny. And the firm has just opened its eighth shop at the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre. So, what is their unique business philosophy?
‘A sense of novelty’
“We continually come up with new initiatives to keep a sense of novelty in the stores. The latest one is the personal shopper idea, where you can buy a gift voucher for a friend to sit down with our trained personal book shoppers for a half hour or so to discuss their likes and dislikes. They will then recommend some really relevant and interesting books for them over the next few months. Also, you can buy a book subscription and we will send out a new book every month.”
The Christmas season is one of their busiest times, accounting for 30 per cent of annual sales, and there is a superb line-up of books in store. So, what will be the best-sellers this Christmas?
"There will be Joe Schmidt's autobiography, then The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, Kevin Barry's Night boat to Tangier, and on a lighter note, the Aisling books are always very popular too," says Dickenson.
How have they withstood the internet giants like Amazon?
"I think Irish readers love communication and coming into the store where they meet the staff and other customers. Online competition is strong – but it's a very isolating experience in contrast to meeting people and hearing feedback. Customers love our book launches and the opportunity to meet their favourite author or listen to an up-and-coming writer sharing their advice. Young readers are a very strong part of our success too. We encourage schools and English classes to come in and meet the likes of Shane Hegarty, Eoin Colfer, Alan Nolan or Sarah Webb. Also, we have a list of celebrities who launch their books in our stores to the delight of our customers – people like Andrea Corr, Nigella Lawson, and Katie Taylor, " she adds.
The popularity of local Irish book clubs also proves the innate sociability of reading and the desire to discuss themes and complex characters from novels like Sally Rooney’s Normal People or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.
It’s obvious Dubray’s team enjoys a close relationship with publishers and representatives, who have provided great support over the years.
Positive driving force
Dickenson also says that social media is also a positive driving force. Authors like Sinead Gleeson, who wrote Constellations, frequently connects with her followers via Instagram. Marian Keyes, queen of the twitterati-literati, also keeps her fans giggling with her quips. Dubray is very much a family-run business but one where the staff are considered part of that inner circle.
Dickenson says they recruit book lovers, who will take pleasure in sharing their enthusiasm with customers. Each bookseller undertakes an 18-month training programme and is responsible for buying books for the store – so no two stores are the same. They also have a grippingly good website full of staff blogs, writing contests and book club news. Indeed, you could build your social life around their whirlwind literary evenings and recommended festivals. Other companies might take a leaf out of their book.
Where do you go after picking up a new book? Possibly the off-licence to pick up a relaxing accompaniment. Jimmy Redmond of Redmond's of Ranelagh is at home working on the shop floor surrounded by strong ales, full-bodied Barolos and robust brandies. Along with his brother Aidan, he fought off competition from supermarkets through building up a great relationship with customers and listening to their feedback.
“The Redmond’s off-licence in Ranelagh is 75 years old this year,” says Jimmy Redmond. “It started out as a dedicated grocery founded by our dad back in 1944. He was a quantity surveyor by profession but retail was in his blood and he slowly built up the business with the guidance of his brother Jack, who ran a shop in Sundrive Road in Crumlin.
The staff here are great and like an extended family. Training is very important and how they interact with shoppers is key to repeat purchases
“Although myself and my brother Aidan transformed the business back in the 1970s and focused totally on selling drink, we retained our reputation for a personalised service.”
Did the online world of shopping, where slabs of cheap beers and vats of vino can be snapped up quickly, harm their business?
“Not really. I think our strength is the fact we are old-school in many ways. We made a decision not to go online but to remain hands-on and more attuned to our customer base.”
Redmond’s is a colourful cave for connoisseurs and the occasional tippler – where you can browse the labels and enjoy a flavour of a new organic wine or an upmarket pale ale. It’s a place where conversation flows freely with customers and where the staff are interested in finding out what wines, beers or presents they would like to purchase.
Redmond's may be surrounded by Centra, SuperValu and cut-price, low-cost booze but it is their efforts to bring quality, a unique range of brands and affordable prices that has kept them popular.
Jimmy advises: “If you look after your staff very well and the regulars too, you will stay successful. The staff here are great and like an extended family. Training is very important and how they interact with shoppers is key to repeat purchases. We have grown it as a niche business in a great location.”
The Redmonds also host customer evenings – fun tasting events when their guests can sample the hot shots, the high balls, low balls and or the latest cocktail recipes.
His advice to others in the business? “Margins are tight. Costs are rising. It is bloody hard work, but we have survived through the hardest times and come out the far side. Listen to your customers and engage your staff fully in the business with training and expertise.”
Another firm cut from the same cloth is Louis Copeland – a menswear business that has managed not to lose its shirt during the toughest of times. It still remains synonymous with style and opened a shop in Cork in September.
The family business is run by Adrian and Louis Copeland and now employs 70 people, including their sons. In total, there are seven stores in Dublin, one in Galway and the new one in Cork.
‘A very personal business’
Adrian, like Louis, lives and breathes the business and is usually found in the Pembroke Street boutique with a measuring tape around his neck and a few pins stuck in his sleeve. He admits to being there practically 24/7. “If you want to survive in this business, you have to be here to meet and greet your customers. It’s a very personal business, particularly the tailoring side of things where you are entrusted with making that perfect wedding suit or a sharp two-piece for a recently qualified barrister,” says Adrian.
“We have really concentrated on our made-to-measure business and despite the advance of fast fashion and online competition, it has really taken off. We pride ourselves on top-quality fabrics, a perfect fit and on-trend style that will stand out. We get a real kick out of creating Savile Row-style suits at affordable prices.”
The wedding side of the business is booming as grooms-to-be want a special suit in terms of design and interesting features. The introduction of marriage equality means they are often tailoring two suits at the same time for the lucky couple.
"Yes, people are treating themselves to that one-off suit that will last a lifetime in the wardrobe. Although workwear is not as formal as before, there is also a great demand for smart separates. We are creating more of our own-brand jackets and trousers as we can adjust lapels, trouser widths and sleeves to suit our customers on a personal level. It also means we are less reliant on labels that sometimes have a different fashion emphasis than Irish tastes. We are making our own quality shirts and we have a workshop here in Dublin as well as a small manufacturing base in Portugal. "
How has the online fashion world impacted? “We have our own online business and that is working well but personally I prefer to sell in person. With online retail all over the world people are realising that the clothing returns are extremely high, and the carbon footprint is huge as a result.”
Adrian agrees that there are positive sides to Instagram and Facebook for showing off new ranges and highlighting sales to their followers.
“One of the biggest sellers this season will be the swacket,” he says. It’s a mixture between a sweater and a jacket and is a very popular purchase this season, retailing at approximately €550. “It comes in a heavy knit, spun wool and looks great. Other key labels include Baldassari, Brax, Inis Meáin and Gant.”
What would be on his Christmas wish list? "I think all retailers would appreciate a reduction in the 23 per cent VAT and a digital tax to level the playing field for shop owners in Ireland. "
Forefront of the beauty business
Make up For Ever has been at the forefront of the beauty business in Dublin for 30 years. Owner Annie Gribbin has been through recessions, daft cosmetic trends, the Botox phenomenon and a catwalk of competitors vying for pole position.
“You couldn’t make it up,” laughs Gribbin, recounting the ups and downs of the beauty business. With the rise of influencers and Instagram stars promoting their stable of brands, it is increasingly hard to keep a straight face in a world of inflated lips, high-rise eyebrows and a tsunami of fake tans.
Gribbin puts her continued success down to her long experience, her background in banking and continual upskilling and training. She delivers make-up classes and also retails her own range. Following a degree in beauty college and a training course in Paris, she came home as a distributor for the Make up For Ever brand in the early 1980s. Armed with a brace of professional brushes and an impressive brand, she built up a high-profile business with a customer base made up of celebrities, socialites and women in need of a makeover.
‘Loyal customer base’
“I have a very loyal customer base, with clients spanning three decades and the staff are brilliant, with the highest training standards. I also do a lot of work with corporate groups, advising staff on applying make-up and smart techniques. I think if you can impart your knowledge to your staff and customers, you have a winning formula that beats the faddish online trends dominated by influencers. In fact, I think this trend will be short-lived and Instagram stars will pass as there is no lasting quality – it’s all fast and transient.”
Why are so many young girls putting on make-up like they are entering a drag queen contest?
"I think it's all about a lack of confidence. Our girls have to be taught a real sense of self-worth that isn't found in a bottle of Tantastic. Over in Europe, it's different. The younger women are more subtle," she says.
“Irish girls appear to have a sense of dysmorphia about their looks and feel a need to hide behind these masks. They really need to be more confident and own themselves and their individuality, so they are enhancing themselves and not transforming their looks to an unrecognisable degree.”
To this end, Gribbin has courses and classes dedicated to reaffirming women’s looks and showing them how to make the most of their features using the Make Up For Ever brand. So, what has been the foundation for her success?
“I think my business is built on a number of key properties that enhance the core brand. Like the courses I run for make-up artists; the personal sessions for sick people who require special techniques for looking and feeling good; the gift vouchers for teenagers who want live demonstrations; and lasting tips on applying make-up for work and parties too.
“However, if I was to pinpoint the core value, I would say that it is all about my customers and their sense of self-worth. It’s about how they feel when they are here. It’s how they relax and trust the technicians and highly trained staff. We are part of a family and in many ways make-up is a therapy that makes our clients feel special and worthy of respect in all areas of their lives.”