They took the Leap and it’s paid off handsomely

WITH the June Bank Holiday weekend heralding the real beginning to the summer tourist season, the owners of the Old Mill Stores witnessed huge traffic flows past their premises last weekend.

They took the Leap and it’s paid off handsomely

“The roads were thronged, far more than last year,” Claire Keane observed of the stream toward the beaches and holiday homes of West Cork. “We recorded a major increase in our turnover, compared to the same weekend in 2012.” She credits the store’s new signage as part of the attraction, encouraging motorists to take a break from driving.

“It has certainly helped, and given that we are on the N71 between Roscarberry and Leap, about 50% of our trade comes from those impromptu stops by people who are taken by what they see,” she says. While the sunshine does increase the traffic on this well known tourist route, it is often those overcast or rainy days that yield the greater custom. “People are looking for things to do on those cloudy days, and we do better on the less glorious days. People will stop and browse for half an hour, and our modus operandi at The Old Mill Stores is to stock items that will not be found in other places.”

Irish visitors are the better spenders, Claire notes, the result in part of airline luggage restrictions preventing foreign tourists from spending more on spontaneous purchases. “A lot of our trade would be divided between Irish visitors from all over the country and local people searching for a special art or craft gift for an occasion or event.” Having a growing homeware range had added to the store’s footfall, with many locals now using it to source utility items for the home.

“We have built up a good selection of items for the kitchen or interior that cater for people’s regular domestic needs, as well as the more unusual ranges that won’t easily be found elsewhere,” she says. Word of mouth and social media have both helped to promote the fledgling business, particularly over the Christmas period when it became a ‘one stop shop’ for gift buyers from the immediate locality in West Cork.

Having originally been an antique stove shop, the Old Mill’s expansion into handpicked homewares and interesting interiors items came about to fill a niche in the market. “We have a lot of space here, particularly after doing a basement conversion, so adding extra ranges was a natural direction for us to grow in,” she says. Already living over the store, the couple wanted to maximise the space to yield better retail potential.

“We wanted to sell things that couldn’t be found elsewhere in Ireland, and began travelling to source unusual stock from around Europe.” Having brothers in Denmark and Holland made regular buying trips an attractive proposition for Claire as new styles and ranges were slowly added to the expanding business. “We source new goods during our quieter periods — October, November and January. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are wonderful for finding interesting ranges in new design, as well as regular trips to France. Over the months, we became stockists for goods that nobody else was selling here.”

With stove sales still accounting for a significant portion of sales, The Old Mill received an unexpected, and very beneficial, piece of promotion when three of their models were chosen for the final Harry Potter film. “We had become quite famous for our stoves, as we were the only people bringing antique Scandinavian and European stoves and the filmmakers just came across us on the internet,” she explains. “They went on to buy three stoves, and that in turn led to us also being contacted for other stoves by film director Tim Burton. We did get to bring the stoves over to the UK, and while we didn’t get to go on the Harry Potter film set, it was a great opportunity for us to visit a number of markets over there.”

The couple’s link to the film world was extended further by local resident and Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, buying three stoves for his nearby home at Kilcoe Castle. “We had a shop in Temple Bar at the time, and coming down here to deliver those stoves to Jeremy was partly the catalyst that eventually brought us to this beautiful part of the world to live,” she adds.

With few places immune to the economic challenges of the past few years, the owners of The Old Mill Stores have made necessary adjustments to their stocks and lines as spending habits contracted in recent years. “We looked to stocking more affordable items, with the aim of increasing our turnover by offering customers a greater range of smaller purchases. We looked to stocking goods for the passing trade, as well as continuing to sell larger items like our stoves. We have tried to find a balance between what people need and what they want,” she says.

Mixing trendy, notional items with more practical stock has paid dividends in keeping footfall up even in difficult times. “People take time with purchases now, and will come in more than once before making a big purchase nowadays. The positive aspect is that they are continuing to look, and are coming back to buy when they have the funds.”

Trading on the advantages rather than potential disadvantages of their rural location, Claire and Tom have emphasised the ‘what’s a shop like this doing in the middle of nowhere’ element to the shopping experience. “We’ve gambled on people liking what we stock as much as we do and so far so good,” she says. “We’ve erred on the side of optimism – we do believe the people will come and they have.”

Despite the challenges in running a business where much of the trade is seasonal, they look to the future with an optimism, and have further expansion plans for the business. “We would like to develop our own brand range, possibly along the lines of t-shirts, bags, scarves, aprons — a general gift and accessories range. We have a number of design ideas in that space that we see as being very marketable, as well as a possible pop-up shop either in Cork City or Dublin. Allied to that, we are looking at adding more vintage lines to the shop, as well as maintaining and developing our online presence further,” she says. “The season here in West Cork has certainly started very well for us, and we expect a better summer than last year.”

Names: Claire and Tom Keane

Occupation: Owners of The Old Mill Stores, Connonagh

Background: Located on the main route to West Cork, the stock ranges from hardware to haberdashery and crockery to craft. They also sell antique stoves, a number of which featured in the final Harry Potter film.

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