Trading Stories: Linen shop tailoring to needs of Cork customers for 42 years

Trading Stories: Linen shop tailoring to needs of Cork customers for 42 years

Joe Cotter, owner, Household Linens, Oliver Plunkett Street. Picture: Jim Coughlan

HOUSEHOLD Linens has been dressing the beds of Cork customers for 42 years, and is now one of the oldest businesses on Oliver Plunkett Street.

But owner Joe Cotter believes the times are changing, and the city centre has to move with it.

He tells us why businesses have stick to their old principles, while embracing the changing market.

How did the business begin?

Household Linens opened in 1977. We’re in business more than 40 years. We started in Princes Street, then we moved to Cook Street for a short while, and then came to Oliver Plunkett Street in 1990, so we’re here a long time. 30 years next year. We’d be one of the top-five longest-running traders on Oliver Plunkett Street.

My brother, Finbarr, was the manager of a glass shop on Princes Street, which has now closed, and his neighbour Con Murphy was looking for an assistant manager, so I applied and came here in 1981. I took over the business when Con retired, in 2004. Myself and Norma, my wife, have been running it for the last 15 years.

We used to have people telling us their mother used to come in here and buy stuff, and now we’re getting people telling us their grandmother used to come.

We’ve got the second generation and we’re onto the third generation now. Long may that continue.

Tell us about your staff.

Norma is the real boss! She has a background in credit unions, so she’s very good at the financial stuff.

The girls that are with me are all here for a long time, so they are very competent. They know the stock very well.

They always get great kudos from customers.

What sets you apart from other stores in the same market?

A lot of places, like Brown Thomas, offer a premium product. Dunnes have really upped their game, with things like the Francis Brennan line and Paul Costello. We’ve had to up our game to stay ahead of the posse.

As a speciality store, we can offer a lot more variety. It’s not just about quality, it’s about selection, and that’s something we have really honed in on.

Another store might offer three types of sheet and we’d have a lot more. We have over 100 different designs of duvet covers. We do 30 different types of pillows and 12 different duvets.

Lots of people are buying different-size mattresses now, so we offer eight different depths of fitted sheets.

It’s all about choice and quality, and, on top of that, we have our staff, who can talk you through what you need.

How have things changed over the years?

People are much more conscious about colour now than they were back then.

Back then, if you sold someone a duvet cover for £20, or whatever, they would buy it if it was a bargain, whatever the colour.

Now, they’re far more colour-conscious and fashion-conscious. If it’s not the right colour, you couldn’t give it to them for free.

They’ve become more educated about colours and and what works with what, and thread counts and what sets a product apart from something cheaper.

Has Brexit affected your business?

80% of our product comes from, or through, the UK, so it’s an obvious concern.

Cotton prices are at a record high and if we have to pay extra tarrifs, it’s going to have a knock-on effect on the price the customer pays.

One lady did ask where our Egyptian cotton sheets come from and, yes, they do actually come from Egypt.

However, they are shipped through the UK, like nearly everything else.

We don’t know what’s going to happen until they do actually leave the European Union.

How has trade been in recent years, as the recession came to an end?

They say that Dublin is on the crest of a wave. They say the provinces are always 12 months behind Dublin: if you have a million people on your doorstep, it’s easier.

Retail is all about footfall.

If I get people in the door, I’m happy that we can sell something to them, that we have an offering that will see them leave with something.

The challenge is getting people to come into town and into the store.

There are people who are over 50 who have always come into town. But we’re not getting any younger. The younger people coming up, well-educated, earning good money, they’re the type of people you need to target. For whatever reason, Cork City isn’t doing enough to attract them in.

It’s as much to do with the retail offering in town as it is to do with internet shopping and everything else.

Fair enough, it’s been hammered in that retailers need to get online, because it’s all online nowadays. I’m not online, so I’m as guilty as everyone else, but we have to do something other than go online to get people into town. If I was just selling online, I could do it from my garage at home: there’s no need for a bricks and mortar store.

Every city centre would die if that was the case.

So we have to make it more attractive for younger people to come into town.

If I put up a picture on Facebook, people will interact with it. But they won’t pick up the phone and talk to me. My generation likes to talk to people. That’s what we do well in the shop. That’s why we need to get people in the door physically. If I can talk to them, I know I can convince them this is the product they need. I’m not sure if I can do that through a keyboard.

The power of persuasion doesn’t translate across the keyboard as in person. Shopping is all about the personal experience. You can make people feel happy about spending their money.

Has pedestrianisation affected your business?

We’ve had pedestrianisation on Oliver Plunkett street for years. Sometimes, the afternoons get quiet, but the afternoons were traditionally quiet.

Patrick Street is a different story.

It’s a big change that they can’t drive into the middle of the city and park up and do their shopping. But show me any city in Europe where you can drive into the middle of the city?

In London, you can do it, but it will cost you twenty or thirty pounds. Someone from Amsterdam told me you can do it there, but it will cost you €20 for one hour.

I think it’s time to be a little bit more positive. Our offering has to improve, the shops have to improve, we have to make ourselves more attractive to get people off the sofa into town.

Does that mean longer opening hours, until 7 or 8? Those are the questions we have to ask ourselves.

There is a lot of positive things going on.

Tell us about your recent survey?

I did a customer survey online recently, and of the 2,000 people that replied, almost 80% of the people shopping with us said it was based on the quality of our products.

85% said the overall shopping experience was good.

But 50% of people said they only shopped here twice a year: basically, our winter sale and our summer sale; 20% said once a month; the rest were rarely, if ever.

It stands to reason. This is not a grocery shop: you don’t need to buy linens once a week.

It would be different for other businesses, but if people are only buying from me once or twice a year, that’s all the more reason that I need to increase footfall.

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