Street smart – A store with a difference

The owners’ willingness to experiment, coupled with an unwavering focus on the needs of its customers, has helped Weirs of Baggot Street build a unique profile and grow a diverse clientele led by a female customer demographic. Maeve and Johnny Plower talked to The Hardware Journal about their approach to developing a convenience hardware store close to the heart of the capital.

Johnny and Maeve Plower outside Weirs on Baggot Street.

Weirs of Baggot Street has a distinctive product mix of homeware, hardware, gifts, toys, gadgets and electrical goods. These are carefully selected by owners Maeve and Johnny Plower to appeal to a diverse customer base ranging from local residents in Baggot Street and Dublin 4 to the employees of the large, multinational tech and finance companies such as Sky, LinkedIn and Bank of Ireland, located nearby.

NEW LEASE OF LIFE

Maeve’s father, Ronan Brocklesby, gave the premises a new lease of life when he revived the hardware/ironmongery business in the four-storey Georgian building (which is a protected structure) in 1977 (see panel, Preserving a hardware heritage).

While the hardware retailing gene is in Maeve’s DNA, she also had an extensive amount of wider retailing experience to rely on when, after her father’s retirement, she took the helm at the store. Having obtained a BBLS degree from UCD, she worked in the buying office at Dunnes Stores and subsequently developed her own giftware distribution business. Her retailing experience has shaped her approach to the design of the shop and its emphasis on customer service.

Taking on the responsibility of the store couldn’t have come at a more challenging time, as Maeve recalls: “It was in 2009, when the whole economy was falling off a cliff and, of course, this sector was one of the hardest hit. For the first couple of years, it was all about survival and making the business viable. The priorities were cost-cutting, minimising outgoings and taking control of every detail of the business.”

Maeve’s retailing experience has shaped her approach to the design of the shop.

As the business found its feet, Maeve looked to add additional areas of expertise and, in 2013, Johnny joined her in the business. With a degree in marketing and 17 years’ extensive experience in the financial sector, Johnny’s skill set is a useful complement to Maeve’s retailing focus, she says: “I was delighted when Johnny came on board. He brings a different perspective to the business and currently is developing the whole technology side of the business. We’re aiming to introduce a dynamic, e-commerce website later in the year. On a personal level, when you’re looking to try new concepts and approaches, it’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off. I think we each act as a useful sounding board for the other’s ideas.”

After a few years of rationalisation and consolidation, Maeve and Johnny saw opportunities to look strategically at the store and its longer term development. Maeve comments: “We were trying to work out what would be the best direction or directions the business should take. In the beginning, we were responding to a crisis situation and the business had developed fairly organically but we wanted to see what impact we could proactively have and to experiment with the layout and the product mix. We really wanted to create a new vision of what the shop could be.”

The store layout maximises the impact of its dimensions

A fundamental element in shaping that new vision was resolving the most effective layout and design for the store front. Of course, the layout of a store front is always important but it is particularly crucial at Weirs of Baggot Street, given the shop’s unique spatial ‘footprint’ and the regulatory constraints dictated by its protected building status. While the store’s street frontage has an average-looking width, its interior stretches back several hundred feet from the street. As such, there’s a lot more to the store than what can be seen by the casual passerby and making the right choice of product and ‘look’ to highlight front-of-store was a pivotal decision. The challenge and the opportunity was to create a look and feel to the front of the shop that would entice customers into what Johnny and Maeve intended to be an Aladdin’s Cave of discovery for the customer.

After a lot of planning and soul searching, Maeve and Johnny completely overhauled the shop’s layout, positioning the hardware section front-of store, moving the gifts and children’ sections toward the back and then measuring customer response, which led to them ‘flipping’ the layout again and going back to the original layout. Maeve comments: “It was a process of trial and error, and a huge amount of work to undertake, but it clarified for us how important it was to have our giftware and children’s sections at the front. It meant that we sharpened our focus on creatively developing those departments with a new-found confidence and commitment based on what the whole process had taught us.” John echoes that view: “Although, the overall process was disruptive in the short term, it gave us a much clearer understanding of what worked for the business.

“Most important of all, while we learned specifically what product mix worked best at the front of the store, the biggest lesson we learned was to be willing to try different things. Having gone through the changes, we saw that even if a major change didn’t work, it wasn’t the end of the world. It made us realise that it was important not to be afraid to shake things up.” Both agree that this willingness to experiment has been vital in developing the business. As Maeve puts it: “The key is to measure what you’re doing, and, if it’s not working, to respond quickly.”

BALANCING FAMILIARITY AND FRESHNESS

They don’t just indulge in change for change’s sake, however, Johnny explains: “We’ve worked hard to see where change is important and where consistency is important. We have identified the best locations in-store for our traditional hardware lines and the strong brands that customers rely on and we stick to them. Our key counter, for example, is located towards the back of the shop. It’s a steady, stable performer and a service that anchors our ‘convenience hardware’ business. Our reputation for this service is well established and has been built by an experienced team with an extensive knowledge of key cutting. We’ve invested substantially in our key cutting equipment and our key board has 797 key types, so we can work with 90% of all keys. There’s a sense of familiarity for customers. People know what to expect from our key counter and have come to rely on it.”

Maeve adds: “By contrast, we have lines that are essentially fashion-led and which require monitoring to ensure that they’re on trend, such as jewellery, bags and scarves. These lines are a strong draw to the casual passerby and the regular customer, so we pay a lot of attention to updating the ranges and refreshing and changing the presentation and layout of these products.” While major layout changes are not something to be engaged in lightly or often, Maeve notes, the willingness to experiment regularly in a managed way is vital. Within its 3,000 square foot area, the shop packs over 7,000 SKUs which provide plenty of opportunities to refresh layouts of individual sections and product lines. Maeve says: “We’ve got a strong cohort of customers who would come in everyday or close to everyday. It’s crucial to keep the experience of visiting the store interesting and fresh. A large proportion of our customers are female so we work hard to create an atmosphere that will engage them. We aim to ensure that the customer doesn’t just get the item they’re looking for, they get an experience that they’ll enjoy and tell other people about.”

Maeve and Johnny seek to maximise the potential of every square foot of the store. “As a smaller outlet, a convenience hardware store, we have the scope to drill down to the smallest detail of every aspect of the business. The layout is designed to entice the customer deeper and deeper into the store. The gifts, kids and homeware sections lead through the more typical hardware ranges such as paints and electrical goods to the key cutting counter towards the back.

“We’ve chosen our colour schemes very carefully and looked to have a clean, well-designed look throughout. We want people to feel relaxed here and to spend time browsing. One of the most frequent comments we hear is ‘I came in looking for such and such a product and ended up leaving with a present for my nephew, a gadget for the office and a can of paint as well’. If we can give people that sense of discovery and attract them to make additional purchases, we’re getting it right.” To enhance the customer experience further, they’ve been looking to create special spaces in the shop for promotions and events. The children’s section has become something of a regular destination for local families on a Saturday morning: “The parents can have a browse through the shop and the children’s section turns into a play area for the younger family members! With three young children ourselves, we’re fully aware of the importance of ensuring that we’ve got a good selection of product that will appeal to children of different age groups and interests. We’ve developed this children’s space further by organising occasional events for children. For instance, we’ve worked with the Irish Fairy Door Company on a very successful event where ‘fairies’ visited the store!”

The year ahead will see continued innovation and change at the store, with one of the key planned developments being the opening of a new rear entrance to the premises. “Double access will make it more convenient for customers from offices on that side of the premises to access the store and it will allow us to have a second ‘front’ that we can use to attract additional footfall.” Another exciting development proposed for 2016 is the expansion of the paint offering and the introduction of a high-end premium brand.

UNEXPECTED TREASURES

Maeve and John seek to ensure that product lines, particularly in the high profile front -of-store departments are quirky and appealing. For example, they have expanded the children’s section to include a range of books from children’s publisher Usborne. “The books are beautifully produced and a high quality product. Customers are surprised to see them and they’re a very appealing impulse purchase for mothers.” The gifts section, is continuously developing and the range now reflects the strong coffee break, lunchtime and post-work footfall the store is attracting from the offices of nearby multinationals. One of the gift section’s latest additions is a handy wallet in which to keep all your passwords for digital services and devices.

PRESERVING A HARDWARE HERITAGE

The ultra-modern, 21st century store can trace its historical origins to 1791 when Richard Lord, Viscount Fitzwilliam, gave Thomas Carroll Esq permission to build the four-storey building at 21 Upper Baggot Street. Almost a century later, in 1885, William Weir, then 27 years old, took over and opened for business as William Weir, Ironmonger and Sanitary Engineer. He had 12 children, seven of them boys and all of whom, in their time, worked in the landmark shop with its distinctive front bow window. The Weir family continued to operate the store right through the first half of the 20th century until, in 1956, William Charles Weir (born in 1891) died. With no one to carry it on, the shop closed. A year later, in 1957, the landmark hardware/ironmongers became a supermarket. Twenty years later, in 1977, Curust Industries and Ronan Brocklesby, father of Maeve, restored the premises to its rightful retail heritage. Ronan approached Catherine Weir, widow of Charles A Weir, who agreed to the use of the Weirs of Baggot Street name and performed the official opening.