Loving what you do and doing what you love makes you both successful and significant. Just ask Robin McDonough of Troy, NY-based retail outlet The Counties of Ireland.
What is your own heritage?
I am Polish on my Mothers side and Irish on my Father side. My father’s family comes from Sligo, Ireland.
Where do you currently reside?
My husband, daughter and I live in Troy, NY.
When and why did you start the business?
I opened my store June 6, 2000 at the age of 24. I was just a baby now that I think back to the first years. I took my first trip to Ireland when I was 20 years old and fell in love with all of the crafts, pottery, wool, etc. I love the small cottage craft industry in Ireland…the little “Mom & Pop” or family run and owned manufacturers. I would bring and ship so many items home on my trips over…items that I couldn’t find in the States. After my 3rd trip over, I decided to open a store. My father owned his own environmental business, and my mother is an accountant that works for herself…so they didn’t think it was a crazy idea. I am they type of person who gets an idea and jumps both feet in…sometimes blindly. I really had nothing to lose at 24 if this didn’t work out. So I quit my job shortly after, and 6 months later I opened the doors. I had the idea to bring the items that I loved in Ireland into the States for others to fall in love with. If I loved them…I figured others would too. I Guess 16+ years later, its true!
What are your roles and responsibilities there?
My roles are pretty much everything…except the accounting. Both my parents are CPAs, so they take care of that aspect for me now that life is busier. I do all of the buying for the store, daily operations, marketing, sales, dust, stock, tag, unpack shipments, take out the garbage, office work…you name it, I do it. I joke often that I wear a lot of hats!
What are the challenges involved?
I don’t think I really have any challenges – nothing major that you can’t find a solution for. It’s a pain to deal with US Customs sometimes. And sometimes, because some of the companies I deal with are so small, product availability is limited…or wait times might be longer then I like. But, there are always solutions for any situation.
What are the rewards?
16+ years later I still get giddy when I see someone wearing a sweater or something from my store. I am really picky about what I stock, so I love when someone else loves what I sell. I look at seams on garments, where posts on earrings are placed, how an item is packaged…I go through everything I stock with a fine tooth comb. If I stock it, it’s because I use it, wear it and love it. I love selling wedding bands, and then years later selling that couple a baby sweater for their bundle of joy. I love being part of life’s moments…births, weddings, graduations, retirements, new houses, etc. I love sharing those joyful moments with my customers. I love my customers! I love that they love my store and love that they come back often…sometime even just to say “Hi.” Can you tell I love my job?
What are your core products?
We carry a lot of things in the shop. We stock a lot of knitted and woven goods. We stock 3 main knitwear lines in the shop: Carraig Donn (Westport, Co Mayo), Ireland’s Eye Knitwear (Dublin), and Kennedy Knitwear (Adara). We also carry Donegal Designs, Bill Baber Knitwear (made in Scotland), Lee Valley Clothing, Celtic Gents Tweed, Hanna Hats just to name a few more. We carry quite a few jewelers also: TJH, House of Lor, JMH, Solvar, Tracy Gilbert Designs, Anu Jewelry, and Jean Butler Jewelry. We carry an extensive line of gifts also, including Mianra Soaps (Cork), Lee River Leathers (Cork), Bog Standard Candles (Belfast), Ferguson Irish Linens (tablecloths, napkins, hankies), Galway Crystal, Belleek, Mullingar Pewter, Diem Pottery, Paul Maloney Pottery, Inis and other fragrances from Fragrances of Ireland (Wicklow). We have been fortunate enough to be the first to debut a few lines in the US, including Bunbury Boards, Paul Maloney Pottery, and Button Studio Jewelry, just to name a few. We travel to Ireland every year to look for new and exciting products. We like to see the factories where the lines are made also. This coming year I hope to get to Ireland’s Eye Knitwear and Mianra Soap, which I adore. There are more lines we carry that are not listed…believe it or not, when I fall in love with an item and the people who make it, I simply have to stock it.
Who are your core clients?
I don’t really feel like we have a particular type of person that shops in the store. My age demographic spans from teenager to older adults, men and women, college kids to working families. We have a lot of people that find me because they are looking for Irish goods, people come to the shop because of word of mouth, and walk by traffic that likes what they see in the windows. Again, I love my customers…I love visiting with them. I love helping them pick out the perfect something special. I do have a lot of repeat customers.
How do you differ from your competition?
I believe competition breeds business. I am different however. I have tagged myself “Not your typical Irish Shop!” because we hear it a lot in the store from customers. They say they have never seen some of the things I carry, or they have only seen them in Ireland. We offer full customer service also. We will help you pick out a gift, wrap it for you, and even ship it for you. If I don’t carry it…I will order it for you. We offer a bridal registry for weddings…we will even put it online for your out of town guests; whatever we can do to make your visit a happy shopping experience.
How has the internet helped your business?
Our website is recently updated and mobile friendly. That was a huge conversion process! Not one I want to visit again…but it’s done. The internet is a tough one…it’s hard to convey that friendly customer service that you receive in the store. We do our best to explain it and we still offer free gift wrapping online. It is a key to our sales because we travel to Irish festivals and this is a way to follow up with these out of town customers. They will see us at a show and order after the fact. We love repeat business. We have also offered a feature on the website where you can order it online for pick up in the store. This has been popular with my customers who need a gift that is wrapped…they usually pick it up on the way to a party, wedding, etc. This way everything is ready for them…they can run it, grab their gift and get on their way.
What are the company’s future plans?
To keep bring amazing Irish made gifts to the US! ind more interesting crafts to bring home We are expanding into Scottish made goods. We brought in Bill Baber Knitwear this year. These knits are made in Edinburgh. here is not a Scottish store close and we have heard for the last few years from Scottish customers that they would love to have access to Scottish made items. So this is something we are exploring and looking to expand into. I’m not Scottish so it’s a learning curve…guess I’m going to have to expand my travels to Scotland to find things – I’m more than happy to make that sacrifice! I would love to open a second location. It’s an idea that has been kicking around. It would have to be the perfect, homey location. My store is a beautiful, old building in Troy. It was Cooper’s Shoe store in the city for 85+ years and has wonderful character. I have the original tin ceilings, the built-in shoe cases are here, along with hard rock maple floors. I hear lots of wonderful “shoe” stories of kids getting their first pair of shoes and how lovely Mr. Cooper was. I know he was. because my mom was the accountant for Cooper’s Shoes when I was a child. She worked in the building and my office was once hers. It is a special store to me. So if we opened another one it would have to be warm, inviting and have history with the people in the community.