Ballyvourney, or Baile Bhuirne, is named after Mary the Immaculate herself, reflecting the premium on public piety during Ireland’s era of hyper-Catholicism.
Before it was named Baile Bhuirne, the place was called Carraig an Adhmaid – Rock of the Wood. According to local lore, when Cromwell’s troops arrived, in order to stop the heathen Englishmen sheltering in the church of St Gobnait, the locals removed the wooden roof and hid it behind a huge rock on the far side of the village. Ballyvourney’s rebellious instincts were revealed again in the civil war as it was the last republican stronghold to fall to the Free State forces. It remains, along with Ballingeary, the last Gaeltacht in Cork and I’ve a special affinity with the place since being sent to an Irish-speaking national school there.
The Spar in Ballyvourney is a serious shop. There’s nothing you can’t get and my cousin, when he’s not off diving in Kerry (and generally leading a much healthier life than his suburban jackeen relative), manfully tends the place. Although I’m sure, as with most Irish families, that the mother really runs the show.
The growth of Spar and Centra has been one of the most interesting phenomena in Irish life over the past ten years. The way we shop reveals a lot about who we are, how and where we live and what type of lifestyle most of us enjoy. Nothing so accurately reflects Irish people’s changing daily experience as the shops on our main streets.
What we buy and when we buy it sheds light on what and when we eat and with whom. It tells us about the state of the Irish family and the state of the workforce.
Our shopping habits are affected by our hours of work.The things you put in your basket tells whether you are single, divorced, widowed, in love, on the rebound or the head of a traditional family of six kids under the age of ten.
Spar also tells us more about the state of an area, particularly urban areas, than any estate agent’s blurb. The arrival of a Spar on the corner of an inner city street means that gentrification is underway or has nearly been completed. So if you’re a property investor and are bullish, buy on the arrival of Spar. If like me you are bearish, the opening of a Spar could signal the top of the market. Either way, a Spar index of residential development is helpful for any prospective property player.
This week, the boom in Spar was evident in its fantastic results. Sales are due to hit €850 million by the end of this year, up from €763 million last year.The company has opened 35 new stores since May and is aiming to open over 100 new stores in the next year, bringing the total number of stores in Ireland to over 400.
Within five years, Spar and Centra will become like Starbucks in the US – ubiquitous, generic and essential. A Spar generation is emerging in Ireland and these people will dominate consumer trends over the coming years.
The future of Ireland is in the hands of the Spar generation. Today’s twentysomethings shop three times a week in Spar.Their shopping habits indicate how much the old divide between urban and rural Ireland has disap-peared.When people in Ballyvourney and Ballyfermot are shopping in the same shops and eating the same food at the same time of the day, then you know the suburbanisation of Ireland is complete. Modern Ireland is one big suburb.
The fact that over the last two years the fastest growing retail products have been ready-meals and food-onthe-run products indicates a serious fall-off in family dinners at set times. Members of the Spar generation are reasonably rich, but indebted and very consumer savvy.They are staying single longer and they are not having children.
They are working long hours, many in what are called “prairie dog” jobs. This description captures well the image of huge numbers of young workers in office jobs where they are hemmed into walled workstations only sticking their heads above the parapet for a “recce” every so often to see what’s going on with their workmates.
These are people who have been elbowed out of the property market by silly prices.They are also largely apolitical. Most importantly, the Spar generation consists of the bulge in the Irish population that peaked in 1980 – on average they are 24 years old. As a result, these people are a marketer’s dream and a political strategist’s nightmare.
Contrast the Spar generation, those born in and around 1979, with those born just a decade earlier. When I was a youngster, convenience stores simply did not exist. In fact, many of the products now sold in Spar were banned at the time. In the years leading up to 1979, people came back from England with three commodities that were unavailable in Ireland – porn magazines, condoms and, believe it or not, illicit sweets.
The list of banned sweets in Ireland included Curly Wurly,Twix,Toblerone and (my personal favourite at the time, for some bizarre reason) Opal Fruits. Those of us living on the east coast had to endure the torture of UTVand HTV beaming smiling British kids into our living rooms, their mouths stuffed with banned goodies and declaring: “Opal Fruits – made to make your mouth water”.
In the real world,we had to make do with Irish Macaroon bars. In 1979, the fatwa on Curly Wurly and Opal Fruits was lifted, leading to an explosion of choice, E numbers and, subsequently, a marked rise in diabetes.
The Opal Fruit-isation of Ireland coincides with the birth of the Spar generation. If you want an image of what the Spar generation will be like when they reach their thirties, listen to Nirvana (a band important to the Spar generation) and imagine a late thirtysomething, balding Kurt Cobain screaming, “Here we are now, entertain us”. Smells Like Teen Spirit defined the Spar generation in their teenage years and the same, “free, here and now” attitude will be evident when they hit 35. Instant gratification will become a must. They will maintain the same appetite for immediate, frantic climaxes and retailers will try to respond.
This is why I’m perplexed this week when I see big shops like Dunnes Stores being investigated by Carmel Foley for below-cost selling. This is yesterday’s battle and an exercise in showboating. Dunnes is not threatening small family-run outfits, in fact, the opposite is the case. Retailers will respond to the demands of the Spar generation by building more Spars.
Across the country, from Ballybrack to Ballyvourney, convenience and instant consumer gratification will be the name of the game and franchised corner shops selling all things from paint brushes to Playboy are the future of retailing.