The paint and wallpaper industry is a changing landscape of trends and styles, with a vast range of brands and companies competing for business. Kevin Coghlan, Managing Director of specialist paint store, MRCB, spoke to The Hardware Journal to discuss why premium brands paint a better retail picture in the long term.
Established in 1936 by Frenchmen Marcel Regent (MR) and Charles Bigoud (CB), the name MRCB is well-known in Dublin city for its unique heritage and dedication to premium paints. Joe Coghlan bought the store, originally situated on Lord Edward Street, in 1989. At the time, as Joe’s son, Kevin Coghlan, the current Managing Director, recalls, many considered it a risky investment due to the company’s insolvent state. “My father had a wealth of experience under his belt, having worked for HGW Paints (Dulux) and DODs of Mary Street. After setting up his own store on Meath Street by the name of Coghlan and Corbett, he believed he could resurrect MRCB and relocated the store to Cornmarket, a much more accessible location.”
Thanks to Joe’s experience and reliable reputation, many suppliers were keen to work with him and support both MRCB and the Meath Street store. Staff were shared between the two shops, which had a positive impact from a cost-effectiveness point of view, although it meant staff had to work particularly hard when both stores were busy at the same time. Eventually, as the business expanded, the decision was made to focus on the potential of the MRCB store and, in 2004, Coghlan and Corbett closed its doors, relocating its knowledgeable staff to MRCB to support the now flourishing reputation of the once bankrupt business.
The company bought the lot next to the original space to expand the company and renovations, completed in 2009, saw the introduction of a dedicated design centre where customers are welcome to browse and peruse the many brands and colours of paint available.
“We found that our larger displays almost overwhelmed the customer so we decided to create the design centre. We focused on one central design concept so we could ease people into their choices in a calm environment. Since then, we’ve gradually introduced displays, including sliding panels which extend from the wall, offering a selection of colour schemes and paint finishes depending on customer preference,” Kevin explains.
Today, the shop comprises 6,500 sq. feet of retail area and a total space – including office, warehouse and basement – of 15,000 sq. feet. MRCB has over 30,000 paint colours on offer from well-known, premium brands including Colortrend, Farrow & Ball, Sanderson and Crown Paints.
When it comes to choosing paint, Kevin notes that many decorators and painters recommend that their clients visit MRCB for the extensive range on offer.
“Many customers who come to us to discuss colour schemes are female; they have more of an eye for colour and care deeply about the overall look of a space in comparison to men who may be more laid back about it all! Some customers who come in have been to their local paint shop and bought samples and decided they want to try a higher quality brand for a more long-term result. We also have young families and professional couples who sometimes opt for low volatile organic compound (VOC) emission paints such as the Benjamin Moore brand, which offers asthma and allergy-friendly paints with 3,500 shades to choose from,” Kevin explains.
Paint vs paper
While wallpaper was hugely popular in the Meath Street store in its heyday, the sector currently accounts for 20% of overall sales, with many people favouring paint and shying away from the added cost of hiring a contractor to hang the paper professionally. “There’s a few more people using wallpaper for full rooms but not a lot. Modern houses tend to favour paint over paper but there’s still a significant amount of sales for feature walls using wallpaper. This is usually discreet with the use of subtly textured wallpapers rather than extravagant patterns.”
Paint remains very much the consumer ‘go-to’ option and grey continues to hold the position of most popular colour over the last number of years, with a new more warm shade known as ‘greige’ gaining ground due to its complimentary beige hue, which ideally suits the cold Irish climate and natural light. However, future colour favourites are taking a darker turn, says Kevin. “The trend is turning towards beautiful deep rich shades, such as Victorian greens and dark greys, which work beautifully with dark furnishings and rich wallpapers. People use these strong colours on walls and may decide to paint the floor white to create a contrast to traditional decor.”
Building business after the bust
According to Kevin, one of the consequences of the downturn years has been a more cautious approach to spending by many customers today. “We have a 50/50 split between trade sales and retail sales. Our sales dropped from peak figures in 2008 by about 40%. Although we have seen a substantial recovery, we are probably still trading between 15-20% below that boom-time peak at the moment.
However those levels were unsustainable and driven by the excesses of the boom. Now we can see people are more careful and considered with their purchases. The growth we are seeing now is more sustainable and based on a sounder footing.”
Like any retail business, staying competitive in terms of price is a constant battle. Kevin explains that online sales are a challenge for the industry as people are researching paint online and comparing prices in store.
“We have to adjust our prices to be more competitive with online stockists but the problem is that companies online don’t have all the overheads of city centre rents and staffing,” he says. The company’s website is currently being revamped and MRCB’s online presence is top priority for 2017, with Senior Colour Consultant, Niamh Courtney, taking on the responsibility of building the brand across several digital platforms.
The company took home the award for Best Home and Design Shop in The Irish Times Best Shops 2016 awards. Kevin attributes the win to his valued team, stressing the benefits of their vast knowledge and loyal dedication to MRCB over the years. “We have 16 staff, the majority of whom are here over 10 years. Our Technical Manager, Paul Bates, came from the original store so he has been with us 44 years, starting off in deliveries at the age of 16 cycling around the city! During the recession, we never let anybody go or cut wages because we value the expertise that our employees provide and decided to simply tighten our belts and work through the challenges.
“Our weekly staff training sessions certainly helped us win the award. The award itself was welcome recognition for the service we provide and proved how valued we are by our customer base. People went out of their way and took the time to vote for us so we really felt proud of what we have achieved. Now, our aim is to continue on the same path in the future with our loyal customers beside us,” he adds.