August 09, 2011

When It All Adds Up

The decision of my mother, always a canny housekeeper, to shop at higher prices should have confused me, but somehow it didn't.

Growing up in the Dublin of the seventies meant that our family, like others across the city, had to carefully watch our outgoings. I can picture my mother at the kitchen table on a Saturday, doing the household accounts, and carefully balancing each penny earned with every penny spent. We lived comfortably enough, but my parents had to work hard to make those ends meet, and there were few extravagances in our home. While my mother was no natural beancounter, circumstances meant that she had to keep a close eye on what she spent and where she spent it.

And yet she chose to shop at Superquinn, where the prices were noticeably higher than at the local Quinnsworth (now Tesco).

With the sale of Superquinn in the news these past couple of weeks, I'm reminded of the apparently unaccountable behaviour of my mother. And of her neighbours and friends. And of the thousands of others like them across Dublin.

It was Oscar Wilde who said that the cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Clearly, Mrs. Tannam was no cynic for she knew the price of everything on the shelves of her local supermarkets, but saw the value in shopping at Superquinn.

Superquinn at that time could claim to be one of the truly great Irish brands, one whose achievements were recognised by retailers worldwide. Sometimes, here in Ireland, we don't quite appreciate how Superquinn and its founder Feargal Quinn remain a byword for customer service and innovation overseas amongst those who know a thing or two about shopping. Whilst his more cynical competitors trumpeted the price of everything, this retail pioneer set about creating value at every turn.

Our local Superquinn operated from a cramped premises but somehow Feargal managed to make shopping there a genuinely pleasurable experience. He brought his bakers in-store and filled the aisles with the smell of freshly-baked bread. He told us about the farmers who produced his vegetables (long before 'farm to fork' became such a popular marketing ploy). He introduced leftover food-bins where shoppers could find complimentary bread to feed the ducks in the park and complimentary greens to feed their pet rabbits. But, for my mother, his master-stroke was the decision to remove sweet-displays from beside the checkouts, so as to offer his customers (many of them young mothers with toddlers in tow) a pester-free passage through that last step in the shopping-trip that can so easily end in tears. The significance of this was unmistakable. While others led into temptation, Feargal was the guardian angel, ready to forsake the easy profit of the pressurised or impulse buy.

There were many other innovations, too many to recall or mention, but the bottom line was that the Superquinn customer felt both cared for and valued, and, as a result, was quick to value the Superquinn difference and pay over the odds.

With household economics again demanding that housekeepers everywhere know the price of everything, too many of our retailers (including, sadly, Superquinn) are failing to show us the value in what they offer. They may pay lip-service to the idea but, despite the many innovations made in convenience shopping, they are making cynics of us all.

What a pity, for there is great profit to be made by those who are prepared to invest in making shopping a joyful experience and great benefits to be enjoyed by those who are invited to see the extraordinary value in it.