Rebel Revival: How Cork's retail fashion is adapting to the Covid-era

Rebel Revival: How Cork's retail fashion is adapting to the Covid-era
Sheena McCarthy of Sheena's Boutique , 24, Oliver Plunkett Street working on her window display.Pic; Larry Cummins

Cork retailer Sheena McCarthy is determined to get back to business on Oliver Plunkett Street, where she has been operating a boutique for 29 years. Roisin Burke meets her.

Fashion retail is in the blood of Sheena McCarthy and she will get through these challenging times with hard work and innovation.

In the city 29 years, Sheena grew up surrounded by ladies fashion as her mother Joan set up a boutique in Midleton 48 years ago, when Sheena was just one-year-old. The store was called “Sheena’s Boutique’.

“She had a great reputation for fashion,” Sheena said, “she brought labels no one had ever heard of to Cork. She only retired a few years ago.”

Sheena McCarthy of Sheena's Boutique , 24, Oliver Plunkett Street working on her window displayPic; Larry Cummins
Sheena McCarthy of Sheena's Boutique , 24, Oliver Plunkett Street working on her window displayPic; Larry Cummins

Sheena told The Echo how her mother won a thousand pounds in Prize Bonds and opened a fashion store in her grandmother’s front room selling bell-bottom jeans to the local factory girls.

She opened the shop after trying to buy an outfit for her brother’s wedding in Cork city and couldn’t find what she was looking for.

After a few years, Joan moved to Midleton’s High Street supplying high-end fashion to Cork’s ladies and 29 years ago, Sheena opened up her own boutique of the same name on Oliver Plunkett Street.

Sheena’s Boutique employs nine people, with seven girls on the floor and two in the office.

Sheena McCarthy of Sheena's Boutique , 24, Oliver Plunkett Street.Pic; Larry Cummins
Sheena McCarthy of Sheena's Boutique , 24, Oliver Plunkett Street.Pic; Larry Cummins

The store was closed for 11 weeks, since the middle of March, before reopening in line with Phase two on Monday, June 8.

Sheena said online sales via blogging has been her saving grace and she has managed to hit 40% of her sales targets every week during the closure.

“I have been selling a lot of outfits online through social media, on Instagram and Facebook and blogging.

“I have been working hard, coming in every Sunday with my daughter, modelling the different outfits and my daughter taking pictures for me. Then one of my girls put the material up online spaced out between Monday to Saturday. We have been doing okay considering.”

One of her employees was living in the city and she had been coming into the store throughout the lockdown and answering the phone, replying to queries and posting orders out to customers.

It took three weeks to get ready to reopen.

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes. We had a consultancy firm come in and advise us how to reopen.

“Now we take the temperature of the staff every morning when we open. If it is too high or too low we call their next of kin and they go home.

“We do a deep clean every morning, every shelf, light switch, the bannister of the stairs is wiped down and the floor is hoovered. There is a lot of cleaning. We have a two-page list of things to do before we open our doors.”

When the store is open, certain procedures have to be followed.

“We have a one-way system around the shop and four dressing rooms, two upstairs and two downstairs.

“After an item is tried on, if it is not bought, it is taken straight to the stockroom, steamed and it stays there for 24-36 hours. It is labelled, when it was steamed and by who and it is brought back on the floor at the appropriate time.

“The dressing room is also cleaned, the floor is hoovered and the curtains sprayed.”

As well as this, staff have the choice to wear masks or visors, but it is not mandatory.

“I wore a visor at the start and I found it very uncomfortable. I find the masks claustrophobic, but I sanitise my hands every 15 minutes and keep my distance, I am very conscious.”

Sheena said she is lucky to have 2,000 square feet of space, to allow customers to feel safe to shop.

“We can fit four people on each floor at the moment safely, but footfall is quiet at the moment, we don’t have queues. We are lucky to have three people in store at the same time.”

A one-way system for customers is in operation at Sheena's Boutique on Oliver Plunkett Street.Pic; Larry Cummins
A one-way system for customers is in operation at Sheena's Boutique on Oliver Plunkett Street.Pic; Larry Cummins

Discussing her thoughts about reopening, Sheena said she had been very anxious and didn’t know what to expect.

“The volume of people on the street is slowly increasing, people are getting more confident but generally it is quiet.”

Sheena said she thought it was quiet as there were no cafes or bars open, no bathrooms open and also hairdressers are still closed.

“I think people are very self-conscious at the moment, the hair is gone a bit mad. When the hairdressers reopen and cafés and bars, I think we will see an increase.”

The retailer said she also thought people are a little bit nervous. In terms of what she is selling, Sheena said at the moment people are looking for casual clothes.

“Nice casual clothes, T-shirts and jeans, there are no weddings or occasions, people aren’t going out, so there is nothing like that being sold.” Sheena also said that people were not really browsing at the moment.

“There is no browsing happening, people are on a mission, the sales conversion rate is very high at the moment.”

The store owner, who has been in business for almost three decades, said it is a different shopping experience at the moment, compared to what she is used to.

“We still welcome people with a smile, but we have to remember to keep our distance. We have to stop and think. There is a difference, you are a bit more cautious, you can’t just zip up someone’s dress for them or give someone a hug. I’m a touchy-feely person and I would have a lot of regular clientele and it is hard to remember not to hug someone after not seeing them in so long. You are more apprehensive, you want to hug but you can’t. You have to train yourself to stop.” Sheena said that is the way it is now.

“We still do what we can, there is still a personal touch. Customers have been very understanding. They really have been fantastic.”

Comparing her sales figures to last year, Sheena said they are incomparable. “Sales are down hugely, but we are working hard.

“There are no communions, confirmations, balls, we don’t know if there will be debs. We do huge debs trade, from February onwards, people come in browsing. It is a big void.”

Despite this, Sheena said she is remaining positive and is determined to overcome the Covid crisis with hard work and creativity.

The retailer has started booking people in for appointment slots where they would have an entire floor of the shop to themselves and also she has been doing virtual shopping via video calls. 

Looking ahead, Sheena said her biggest fear is a second surge in the autumn but for now she is staying positive.

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