Brian was regional manager for an off-licence group before opening his own, independent, outlet in March 2007. At 29, Brian has enjoyed his working life in and about the retail trade, having gone to work “packing spuds in a local shop” when he left school. He went on to become assistant manager and manager in Centra outlets before taking to the roads of Munster as a sales representative for Coca-Cola.
The off-licence trade was already fairly-well covered in Midleton when Brian opened for business in 2007. O’Donovans had two outlets in the town and both Tesco and Supervalu also included off-licences within their supermarkets. These outlets have since been joined by Lidl and Aldi, so Barry’s off-licence is not short of keen competition. However, Brian Barry was careful in his choice of location and, being just outside the town provides him with a separate local market. The shop is located near five new, but well-occupied, residential estates, providing a healthy clientele of first-time buyers, who have set up new homes. Many of these potential customers are “new to wine” and Brian Barry has provided a broad range of wine, a high level of customer service and a not inconsiderable passion for the business.
Although established just over three years ago, Brian has revamped the shop three times as he adjusted his plans in reaction to customer demands and his own steep learning curve. Clearly not lacking in energy or a taste for innovation, he has sought to maximise every opportunity as he built up his fledgling business. The original two-foot chilled wine cabinet is eight feet wide and he has added four additional wine bays. He has also tried some ancillary lines and was not afraid to remove them when they weren’t contributing to his overall strategy, despite their inherent profitability. This includes a DVD rental business, which Brian later dropped as he believed that late returns and outstanding fines might discourage customers from returning to the store as wine buyers.
Catering for customers
Building up a customer base is a challenge for any new business. Doing so in a new and evolving community is an even greater challenge. Barry’s Off-Licence operates a wine loyalty card that provides points to be used against later purchases. Brian has specifically limited the loyalty card to wine purchases as it is this portion of the business in which he has most interest and in which he feels the success of his business lies. In doing so, he can provide added value with his own advice and knowledge and, by sourcing wines not available elsewhere in the locality, he can avoid the price wars associated with well-known branded products. In fact, a great proportion of his wines are exclusive to Barry’s Off Licence within the east Cork region.
In considering the impact of the recession, Brian has noticed that customers “are looking after their money more” and as a result “moving down to a lower price point”. It is to his credit, that he has maintained the footfall in the shop, but people are just not spending as much as they used to do. Rather than becoming despondent about this, Brian’s pragmatism has allowed him to provide “a changing wine portfolio to meet customers’ needs”.
Wine fare educates customers
Supporting both the importance of wine education and customer service, Barry’s off licence has hosted a wine fair each year at the Midleton Park Hotel. Suppliers have welcomed the opportunity to support a professional retailer and to market their own wines directly to the consumer. Local wine drinkers benefit from the range of wines on offer: “The fair gives our customers a chance to try wines they wouldn’t be familiar with”. A third beneficiary is the chosen local charity that benefits from the proceeds of admission, thereby underlining the commitment of this business to the community of which it has become part. Consumer reaction has been positive and substantial. Attendance has been impressive with some 250 people attending in February 2009 and, despite the recession, over 180 people attended the fair in 2010. This is a substantial number of potential customers for any off-licence. Brian maintains the concept of encouraging his customers to try new wines by hosting wine tastings every second weekend.
Keeping staff tight
Brian has kept a tight rein on his business, being on the ground personally as much as he can. Fortunately, he has an experienced and reliable right-hand woman in the form of his manager, Treasa Hyde. Treasa has worked with Brian since the shop opened and has solid experience from working previously in the independent off-licence sector. Three part-time staff complete the Barrys team. Both Brian and Treasa have completed the WSET Intermediate Certificate and all five of them have completed NOffLA’s Responsible Trading in the Community (RTC) course. Given the community of young families in which the shop is based, Brian didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about his perspective on the matter of underage selling. The shop is RTC certified and all staff follow the code. “Staff training is an essential thing – compare RTC accredited staff with your local filling station where anyone can sell alcohol to you”. Brian is in the business for the long-term and knows the importance of distinguishing his outlet as that of an independent professional business that is run responsibly as part of the community.
Benefits of NOffLA
Brian Barry joined NOffLA as soon as he had his outlet up and running. “There’s safety in numbers”, he quips as he goes on to detail the many and varied benefits he has discovered since joining the association. Brian feels that he has benefited particularly from his participation in the Off-Licence of the Year, having won the “Best New Entrant” in 2009 and the “Munster Off-Licence of the Year” in 2010. “The Off-Licence of the Year was a huge thing for us; great for the store – and winning gives you such a boost”. Despite his success, Brian is quick to point out that the real benefit of the awards was in meeting the awards criteria. His first revamp of the shop was focused specifically on doing just that. “Just being in the awards has improved the shop. I can definitely say that”.
Brian is also aware of the benefit of pooling the experiences of all the independent off-trade. Despite his success in a relatively short period of time, he recognises that advice and expertise of a fellow operator can only better prepare him for whatever might come his way. “The climate is changing all the time. Your store is never ‘done’. You can always improve your shop. You always have new wine and new customers and you have to cater for both. The learning never stops”.
Government must get in on action
Brian Barry is adamant that Government must act on a number of fronts to meet its responsibilities to consumer and society. “The Government need to do something about below-cost selling. Make it a level playing field and then let the customer decide where they want to shop. They will go to their local independent because that’s where they’re getting the customer service.” He is certain of the ability of the independent professional to deliver a higher standard, given the chance.
Consistent with this is the belief that only a specialist retailer can properly handle the sale of alcohol and that they must be provided with the reliable means by which to do so. “The Government will also have to bring in a mandatory age card”, he adds without hesitation.
Looking to the future, Brian is pragmatic about the challenges that lie ahead for himself and for the independent off-trade in Ireland. “As I see it, the biggest challenge for the industry is to try to compete with the multiples and it’s also my biggest challenge here in Midleton. Because of the recession, people have become much more price-focused. Everyone is counting the pennies. I don’t want to lower the standards in my store to compete only on price”.
Survival of the fittest
Although Brian Barry has had the dual challenge of growing a new business and operating in a recession, he realises that the worst may not be over. For the next eighteen months, as far as Brian Barry sees it, “It’s all about survival”. As consumers concentrate on getting value for money, his main focus is “to offer high customer service with a strong wine portfolio at a competitive price”.
Despite the need to focus on survival, Brian Barry is also diversifying with a move towards the catering end of the business. His outlet provided the wine for thirty weddings last year and plans to build on that to act as a one-stop-shop for “wine based parties” for the “party-at-home” market, including post nuptial celebrations and corporate events etc. The service will include refrigeration, glasses, wine and beer on a sale-or-return basis. Brian sees the move as a natural extension of his existing business.
Whatever about Brian Barry’s business plans, he may be distracted somewhat this summer as he and his girlfriend, Garda Susan Nolan, get married on 30 July. Never one to miss an opportunity to learn, Barry and Susan will honeymoon in the Mont Rochelle winery in South Africa. Given the luxurious surrounding, this won’t be quite “a busman’s holiday”, but I’m sure that Brian will get to enjoy the two loves of his life!