INCREDIBLE though it might seem, when it emerged that Cypriots were having their bank accounts raided as part of the island’s bailout, it led to an increase in business for those selling clothes in small towns on the far side of Europe.
Patrick Bourke found that people, particularly older people, were inclined to turn part of their savings into something tangible, lest Ireland’s dysfunctional banks be next in the firing line. “It helped us. People were afraid their money would be lost so they decided to spend their money instead of losing it. You’d notice it with older people rather than younger people, because younger people hadn’t the money sitting there.”
He operates men’s clothes shops in both Kilrush and Ennis and is the third generation of his family in the business. “It started in 1928, we’re 85 years in business this year in our shop in Kilrush. My grandfather started it in 1928, my father took it over in 1957, the year I was born, he had been working there before that. I started with my father in 1974. I did one interview in my life, that was for the bank and they were lucky they didn’t get me! It might have been a bigger mess!”
It’s no secret that domestic businesses have struggled for years now and are still struggling.
It’s the third recession Patrick has been in business for, but for the first time it’s coming after a boom, and he says it’s much more dramatic this time than in the 70s or 80s. “This one is much more dramatic, the fall is much sharper,” he notes.
When trade started to dip it didn’t happen by degrees, it was almost overnight, and there has been no real recovery to date. “In September 2007, it was the same as if our trade fell off a cliff. Earlier that year the car trade had already disappeared. There was a further dramatic fall at Easter 2008, so it came in a short time.”
There hasn’t been any sustained recovery since, and every time there is some uncertainty in the public sphere it hits business again. “We had a further drop in 2009 and 2010. There was a slight increase in 2011 and 2012 , but very slight. The spring of 2013 was probably one of the toughest of the last six years.
“It’s been a tough slog, a tough fight. Every time there’s a blip in the political arena, automatically the pockets tighten up. The property tax took over €300 million out of the economy in July. As a result, around the country, July was a poor month for everything.”
He feels that upcoming budget is a huge one, and that if the austerity goes much further a lot of people will really feel it. “It’s (the budget) being brought forward from December to October and that will be a game breaker for a lot of people. If it takes too much money out of the system a lot of retailers and a lot of homeowners and PAYE workers, who are already down to the threads, will see an awful difference.”
Even if the adjustment is milder than some of the speculation suggests, he doesn’t expect the retail sector to improve by this time next year. “If we stay steady as we are it’ll probably be as well as we’ll do over the next 12 months. They’re talking of a growth rate of one or one and a half percent and that can all be taken up by one sector, it doesn’t have to be spread easily across the board. Retail won’t increase by much, at best it’ll hold it’s own.”
Business is at the centre of the Bourke household, with his wife Imelda running a café/deli in Kilkee, while also working as a teacher in Kildysart. They have a son who is halfway through a business course in Trinity, who is showing an inclination to follow in his father’s footsteps.
When he spoke to The Clare Champion in August Patrick hadn’t had a day off for four months and was combining the retail business with mornings making apple tarts and brown bread for his wife’s operation.
He says that he rarely gets to work less than ten hours in the day, but he is very happy with what he’s doing. “As long as I’m at it I’ve hardly said to myself half a dozen times that I don’t want to do what I’m doing today. I love what I’m doing, if I was reincarnated would I do anything else? Probably not. You know what they say, if you were to organise your life you’d probably make an awful mess of it!”
There are a lot of things he enjoys about the work, the financial side is what he finds least interesting, but there are compensations that he lists out. “Meeting the people, planning for the people, offering the people the best thing you can offer them, the cut and thrust of business during the day, meeting different characters, solving different problems, working with different people.
“Fellas would say to me that I must have a massive wardrobe. On a personal basis I wouldn’t but I do like the idea of forecasting and buying and selling to people, even to different generations of people.”
At the moment, it is the grey market that’s holding strongest. “We’ve noticed over the last while that the age profile of our customers has come up a bit. They’re the people with money now, they holiday more, it’s not that they’re spending more but they are spending. They are cuter about how they spend it and they’re looking for more value but they are spending. The younger market, a lot of them have emigrated. The 20 to 30 bracket, an awful lot of them have emigrated. In our basement, where we do the jeans, we had what we call the Australia factor last Christmas, guys coming home from Australia. Clothing in Australia is 30 to 50% dearer than it is here and they can’t get boot cut jeans in Australia so they were in buying them. It’s too hot to work outdoors so they come home for two to three weeks at Christmas, but they come home in t-shirts. Then they’re looking for a jacket and a jumper and they’re buying jeans to bring back.”
Births, marriages and deaths and the rituals that go with them are absolutely crucial for his business. “If religion went out of the country not alone would our trade be dead, the hospitality sector would suffer massively as well. I reckon that every wedding is a minimum quarter of a million euro spend, the average one is way more.”
That kind of a sum sounds a bit on the high side until you think about all the different things involved, and the length of time that goes into preparation. “From the time you ask your lady to marry you, there are wedding safaris at the ladies end of it, they are going on day trips looking for wedding dresses and they’ll do two or three shops on a Saturday. None of them get away without €100 of a spend between petrol and cups of coffee and that sort of stuff. Go along from that there’’ trial haircuts and make up that kind of thing. The fella has to get a haircut and an outfit, either rent it or buy it and the trend is to buying it now. Then you have all the guests and all the presents. The stag and hen nights, they’re all staying closer to home now, you have the afters too.”
However, years and years of austerity are taking a toll are all but eliminating discretionary spending, and ultimately he feels that water rates and household rates will see an average home down about €1000, with clear consequences. “I think they want to take about a thousand euros a year out of houses, about €20 a week. That €20 a week is a pair of jeans for a husband at the end of the month, it’s the pair of shoes for the wife, it’s a schoolbag, it might be a night out for someone or it might be the difference between a couple going to a wedding or not going. People are beginning to refuse to go to weddings whereas before there was an obligation to go.”
When he spoke to The Champion it was before the drawn All Ireland final, and while he said some businesses such as pubs and sports shops would get a benefit from the game, it would have a detrimental effect on others in Clare, bringing much of the county’s discretionary spending to the capital. “Take 25 or 30 thousand people from Clare going. Eighty euros for a ticket is the starting point. You share a car going up and you’ll still have to give a fella €20 for petrol anyway, or it’ll be €50 on the train. You’ll eat above or you’ll bring a few sandwiches or whatever, but the minimum cost is €150.”
Bourke’s expanded into the county town in the mid nineties, originally operating solely on O’Connell Street.
Now they are at the Square and have 9,000 square feet over four floors and he says they are able to sustain the large premises. “I sort of knew that if I could develop this premises enough and get it to its full potential that you would do a level of trade that would support it. Obviously it was bought and built during the good times, so obviously it wasn’t a cheap place to buy or build, but we’re lucky enough that we’re able to manage it. I wouldn’t say that we’re managing it easily, but we’re managing it.”
Younger retailers often call him for advice, people who haven’t encountered such difficult times in the past. He says he is regurgitating some of the tactics that the likes of Clery’s and Arnotts used to get through the 80s. In recent years he has gone abroad to see what the major players there are doing, with Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) organising so-called ‘Retail Safaris’. “We did one in London earlier on this year for two days, we got a big talk from a well known marketing company there. Before we arrived they had helped set up the first Chinese chain of stores in London. They brought us through all the different shopping trends and ideas and showed how a trend in one area can be brought into your own field. You’d get good ideas out of it.”
The business has to run on a day to day level, but it’s also important to look at the bigger picture, identify the challenges and opportunities ahead and figure out a strategy for them. There is no time of day that’s particularly suitable for that, but he says it is essential that it not be put off indefinitely. “The biggest problem for a fella like me is to try and work on the business because I’m spending so much time working away at the coalface.
“To focus on the business is probably the hardest thing, you can let it drift and work away on it, but that’s not going to help you. You have to plan. If you want to get results you have to have a plan.”
Patrick tries to have three plans in place, one for the short term, another for the medium and a long-term three-year plan. At the moment it’s important to be flexible because things are so trína chéile. “It’s very unstable and that’s why you have to have the three strategies. If you’re like a ship at the moment you’re in trouble. You have to be like the hare on the coursing field and be able to turn on a six pence.”