IF YOU walk around any city in Ireland, it’s depressing to see the number of shops that lie vacant. Some units in swanky retail developments have never had a tenant while others on more established thoroughfares housed businesses that traded for generations but couldn’t ride out the recession.
So imagine how hard it must be to earn a living from a small shop in a small provincial town. The picturesque town of Newcastle West in Limerick is 58km from Tralee and 42km from Limerick City. It has seen dozens of businesses go under in the past five years as thousands joined the dole queue following the collapse of Castlemahon and Kantoher poultry plants, as well as the construction industry.
Clothes shop Promenade, on Maiden St, was one such casualty. We spoke to owner Caroline Doody when we were in town prior to the budget in 2008 and she was finding business challenging. Within months, she was closed and a second tenant, who followed her into that unit, was also forced to shut up shop two years ago.
But other businesses are surviving as canny owners like Ian Scanlan of Scanlan’s Menswear see opportunities to be exploited.
“It’s great to see Bloomers Cafe opened off the square and Senator Windows have just opened a shop,” says Aoife Hayes of Objekt Design. “The big difficulty for us is trying to compete with Limerick so we’re trying to keep business local by offering what people need at competitive prices without having to spend the fuel on a trip out of town as fuel is such an issue for people.”
Her mother, Mary Hayes, runs Ela Maria boutique on the Square and says her shop is only trading because of “a loyal client base, hard work, self belief, and more regular cut-price sales”.
The town’s big employer, Pallas Food, has been investing in the community and is a sponsor of the town’s Red Door market, which is attracting tourists on the well-travelled road to Kerry to take in the medieval Desmond Castle complex with its 99 acres of parkland.
However, auctioneer Charles O’Brien believes it will be many more years before Newcastle West returns to normal employment levels. Nonetheless, he is seeing improvements in his business.
Older, often cash, investors are seeking to buy prop-erty to let and many farmers are selling their shares in Kerry Co-op, he says, and they’re buying land. He’s had eight land sales so far this year compared to an average of three in recent years. “The prices for houses are poor but there is great demand for land... they have money to spend where they see value,” he said.
Declan Benson says there are two types of customer in his credit union: The first are burdened with debt from the Celtic Tiger and the second are borrowing cautiously for back to school, children at college, home improvements and for second-hand cars.
He also says a strong savings ethic has developed, even among those on welfare, who are trying to “save a bit” through schemes like the credit union’s Christmas Club.
But it’s still not easy running the credit union. Loan demand, though increasing somewhat lately, is still very low, return on investments is minimal and arrears are high.
He says the credit union has done a lot of restructuring and works with everybody on a “case by case” basis, adding that his door is open if anybody is having trouble meeting repayments.
The credit union is lending €5m locally and Declan says festivals like the West Fest show how the business community is attracting people into the town.
The medieval Desmond Castle complex has also been invested in an effort to lure tourists to make a stopover on their way to and from Tralee and Killarney.
Job creation is vital if Newcastle West is to come out of the doldrums though, says Declan. He points to excellent back-to-work schemes such as a West Limerick Resources project which gives employers €10,000 for every new employee they take on for 12 months. However, he says the Department of Social Protection needs to further market these schemes and also to match skills to job vacancies.
WHAT HE WANTED FROM THE BUDGET:
“It should be all about creating the conditions for job creation and giving people, who are working, the confidence to spend. By focusing on those two areas, the economy will grow.”
WHAT HE GOT: Declan will be interested in seeing the detail around job creation and is happy that benefits and taxes remain as was.
Back in 2008, Colm had the Sherry Fitzgerald franchise for Newcastle West and was operating on Goat St. He was reeling from the collapse of the property market and was anxious for his future.
Since then, he has left Sherry Fitzgerald and started the West Property Group at an office over Ulster Bank at Market Yard.
He’s also been selling ghost estates around the town and “offers have been coming in” for developments where the residents have worked together to maintain the environment and where it “makes business sense” to take on these enormously complicated projects.
He described the first six months of 2013 as “the worst of the whole lot” but now he believes “we have bounced over the bottom of the market” as people are seeing value “as house prices are now equal to the cost of the site and the building cost”.
Most of his current residential sales are one-off houses within commuting distance of Limerick. There are now a few houses selling in estates in Newcastle West but the numbers are minuscule. Houses aren’t coming up for sale much in this sector, so that is good for those selling.
Like the town’s other auctioneer, Charles O’Brien, he’s also seeing investors in their 60s going into this market, with most of them cash buyers who can see the value.
WHAT HE WANTED FROM THE BUDGET:
“Any time the Government interferes in the property market, it comes to a sorry end, so I don’t want tax breaks. But some incentive for first-time buyers would be good and something to accelerate the completion of ghost estates.”
WHAT HE GOT: Thrilled with the ghost estate scheme and the refurbishment tax relief.
When last we visited David in 2008, the re-upholstery part of his business was enjoying a revival as householders suddenly looked to “upcycling” a well-worn family sofa rather than just throwing it in a skip and sticking an over-priced replacement on the credit card.
But the following two years were still very difficult.
“It was a big effort to keep open but we managed it.
“We look after a number of different types of furniture and that spread helped us through,” he said.
O’Doherty’s is in business for 36 years and has an older client base of “good customers” with many in their 50s and 60s with their children living independently.
“We would be doing a lot of repair work on imported furniture bought during the boom. The quality just isn’t there compared to the Irish craftspeople. We would also have done a lot of re-upholstery on well-made sofas with a good frame, spine and foam that people would have bought 10 years previously.”
David says that he can see that people are beginning to loosen the purse strings somewhat again.
Two years ago, he was working from week to week with just ” seven or 10 days of work ahead of me“, now it’s pushed out to a month.
He has also noticed footfall rising in the shop.
WHAT HE WANTED: Like other retailers in the town, his fear was that people’s income would be hit and that the austerity axe will be wielded further. We have enough taxes and cuts to income, he warns.
WHAT HE GOT: David was happy that welfare and taxes remain as was but isn’t happy that old people are being targeted via their telephone allowance.
Posters heralding Oktoberfest are pasted to the front of Cleary’s Bar on Goat St.
Owner Seamus Cleary lived in Germany for five years before opening a pub in Newcastle West. He was having a few friends to stay for last year’s Germany-Ireland soccer match and bought in some German beers “for the buddies”. He decided then “for the hell of it” to hold an Oktoberfest weekend. Locals loved it and the event was held again for this year’s Germany-Ireland game, even though the match was held in Cologne not Dublin.
“You have to keep on coming up with ideas like that, we’ve even had a Goat St Festival, a ska festival, an Imelda May festival as they just get people away from house drinking and into the pub.”
In 2008, when we last visited, Seamus had started to innovate, and it has served him well, he says.
Much of his clientele are 30-somethings and he says they spend a quarter of what they would have during the boom. Large numbers don’t come in until 11.30pm on a Saturday. They spend about €20 over the following hours.
This means that whereas in 2008 he had four or five staff, now there is only himself.
Across the river on Bridge St, there are three former bars with “to let” signs over their windows. What has kept him trading? “Innovation, cutting costs, and also I’m lucky. I have a smoking area. I know that draws them in,” he says.
WHAT HE WANTED FROM THE BUDGET:
“Stop selling below-cost alcohol in the supermarkets. Alcohol shouldn’t be cheap and drinking it should not be left unregulated.”
WHAT HE GOT: Seamus wasn’t happy that the off-licence trade wasn’t targeted for higher taxes.
The last time we were in Newcastle West, this shop was Murphy and Son Menswear and was being run by 47-year-old Declan Murphy who had returned from Australia with his Aussie wife and three young children to take over the family shop.
Three generations of Murphys had traded from the Maiden St premises for 121 years but in Sept 2010, after two difficult years and a €60,000 investment, Declan gave up the ghost.
Within two months, he was back in Australia and back to his old job in Sydney.
However, within another two years, another Newcastle West man who had worked for Declan’s dad rented the shop. With an economics degree and a master’s degree in development, it was a big decision to make for the young man who had been offered a job with Irish Aid in Africa. “I wasn’t ready to go,” he says and he thought he could make a go of the shop.
Expanding its range to include childwear and more fashionwear and selling through Facebook, he aimed for “something different”. He hasn’t forgotten about his older, more traditional customer either.
“I just thought people will still buy if it’s the right stuff at the right price and you know, we’re tipping away,” he says.
Employing one full-time and one part-time staff member, he is seeking planning permission to extend and a website is to be launched.
WHAT HE WANTED FROM THE BUDGET:
“I’d love to see a reduction in Vat as it’s nearly a quarter of the cost of an item. I’d also like to see more help for young people trying to start something up as the banks just laughed at me.”
WHAT HE GOT: Ian is another retailer pleased to see taxes, Vat, and welfare untouched.
With its €400 Calligaris dining room chairs and €300 Missoni throws, the recession was always going to hit Aoife Hayes’s contemporary furniture and design shop like a tornado.
Set over 8,000sq ft on the ground floor of an apartment block next to the River Arras, glass-fronted Objekt was a shop you could spend half an hour wandering around, agog at the quality of stock — and prices.
High-end shops such as these shut one after another in Dublin in 2008/2009.
But Aoife is still in business due, she admits, to a focus on gifts rather than furniture and larger design pieces.
In 2008, she had hoped she would weather the storm as people would refurnish homes and extend homes if they couldn’t afford to move.
But, as she says herself, she soon found out that for many people this recession “would mean survival” and making-over halls, kitchens, and living rooms would become the stuff of dreams.
“People just didn’t have the money but the way we saw it, they are still getting married, having babies, going to housewarmings and so they still like to buy a great gift,” she said.
The shop, which has sale signs on many of its large pieces of furniture, now has a coffee corner. It has evolved into a kind of lifestyle shop where it’s hard not to walk out of with a purchase in hand whether it’s espresso cups and saucers or a cheeky Little Miss Naughty mug.
“The summer was good to us too. With the weather, there was more traffic on the road, more people holidaying and taking weekend breaks at home,” said Aoife.
WHAT SHE WANTED FROM THE BUDGET:
“The Government can’t be too harsh on people’s pockets as they have been bled dry. I’d like if taxation was left as is. The only hope for retail is if people start to believe that they can spend a bit.”
WHAT SHE GOT: Aoife was delighted with the tax relief for house refurbishment and lack of tax hikes.