The news today about McElhinney’s of Athboy is really heartwarming. Unusual for business news to be “heartwarming”, but this is a through-and-through good news story.
I’m not too acquainted with the finer points of the deal, but from what I gather, after going into voluntary liquidation, the company did a deal with another Irish company – Flairline – allowing it to reopen the store and rehire its 56 employees.
McElhinney’s is a well-known brand and occupies a place in the consciousness of a lot of Irish people. Of course, they will never be forgiven for that appalling TV ad “starring” Rosanna Davison. Here it is, just to remind you:
.. But we won’t hold that against them.
Today’s news is really encouraging, and shows that a bit of imagination and a a really solid brand can provide an escape hatch for businesses that don’t appear to have one.
It’s particularly encouraging given the number of small businesses that are closing around the country.
Living in a city centre, I have a bird’s eye view of businesses closing and opening, and at the moment there are certainly more doing the former than the latter.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking past the Spectra photo shop on Patrick Street when I noticed they were having a sale, at 70% off. Unable to resist that when I needed photo frames for some prints I bought recently, I went inside, and only then realised that it was a closing down sale.
As I was buying a few knockdown frames, from the very small selection that remained, I had a most depressing chat with the owner.
Online destroyed him, he reckoned – that and the cameras in his shop just couldn’t compete with the big multiples. He was obviously a keen photographer himself and I’m willing to bet the level of expertise you would get shopping there would have been second to none.
It wasn’t all bad – he himself was moving to a job with a former competitor – something like the McElhinney’s story. But the shop that he obviously loved was gone, and it was with something like shame that I left with my not-quite-ill-gotten gains.
That same week I was food shopping, and dropped into my local vegetable shop, which is located in a shopping centre, near a large supermarket selling all the same produce it sells.
Chatting to the owner, I got the same sense of despair from him that I’d got from the Spectra man. Except that he was still in business, just about. He couldn’t understand why potential customers were walking past his – cheaper – fruit and veg to get to the supermarket at the end of the shopping centre. Neither could I, to be honest. It was clear that he loves his shop, that profit margins are extremely tight, and that he doesn’t know how long more he can keep going. When I called in, it was after closing time, but he was staying open during sweeping-up time just to catch the last few stragglers. I left with lots of fruit and veg, my week’s supply, for about €7, and without the pain of traipsing through a supermarket.
Those two experiences made me really, really think about what small, local retail means, to both owners and customers.
It’s about pride, and personal achievement, and ‘buy-in’ and genuine ‘ownership’, literally and metaphorically, for the owner. For customers, it can be as important as a social network, a valuable source of advice and information, and just one part of the glue that holds a community together. Economically, it’s about jobs, and keeping money circulating locally, and a rising tide lifting local boats. But, lest we all get carried away, economics are only a part of it; the human side is just as important.
I’ve always paid lip service to shopping locally, but since then, I’ve been determined to try. I’m doing my best to buy in small local retailers and to buy what I need from them, even if it’s a bit more expensive, rather than going to a big supermarket and buying a load of stuff that I don’t need and that will go off anyway.
The McElhinney’s news is brilliant for their staff, for the company, and for the locality. Let’s try and make sure there are some more good news stories like that.