Robinson's Shoemakers is a family business in Carrickfergus established in 1954 and taken over by Robin Stewart from his father-in-law 15 years ago.
Since then the firm's operations have been transformed into one of the largest and most successful quality shoe retailers in Ireland.
“It was an old-fashioned cobbler's shop,” recalls Mr Stewart. “It sold one or two shoes of low- quality brands, but nothing much.” He adds, though, that “keeping the name was important”, because of the recognition factor.
From the outset, Mr Stewart had plans to both improve the shoe repair operation and to move into the sale of top quality shoe brands. “I had a vision of what I wanted to do, but I did not have the money,” he says. “We have not only changed direction since then, but we have expanded.”
The first stage of that transformation was to build on what was already there — the shoe repair. Mr Stewart had difficulty recruiting top quality shoe repairers and had few responses to advertisements in Northern Ireland. This changed when he put a job ad in a Polish language magazine in London.
He had 27 responses, one from an experienced shoe maker. That person was recruited and though he has since left, his brother still works for Robinson's.
Alongside improving the shoe repair side of the business, Mr Stewart also greatly increased the sale of shoes — focusing on the quality market.
The high-end brands sold by the firm now include Loake, Barker, Jeffrey-West and Church's. “I saw the potential as there was only one other shoe shop in Carrickfergus,” says Mr Stewart. “I had difficulty buying shoes in the town, so I realised the opportunity was there.”
The firm opened its second shop selling into the men's quality market in December 2007. Although this was a bad time to launch a business selling expensive goods, the launch has succeeded. Turnover rose by 84% in the first year of trading and by a further 95% last year — moving into profit within two years of trading.
But Robinson's was not content merely to sell shoes from other brands and recognised the opportunities created by employing qualified and experienced shoemakers. It has now begun selling handmade shoes, including some that are bespoke. The main product is Irish brogues — Mr Stewart stresses that although brogues are regarded as an English shoe they originated in Ireland and the word ‘bróg' is Gaelic for shoe. Although handmade shoes may sound expensive at £285 a pair, “this is about £1,000 less than a bespoke shoe, or £2,000 less than a bespoke shoe would sell in London”, says Mr Stewart. With support from Invest Northern Ireland, Robinson's are developing exciting plans to sell the shoes in the United States, particularly to Irish Americans in New York and Boston.
Robinson's now has three premises in Carrickfergus. There are the men's quality shoe retailer and a ladies shoe shop, which shares a unit with the shoe repair. A third unit handles mail and internet orders, including the mail order of safety shoes. In addition, plans are advanced for a fourth unit selling shoes to teenagers and young adults. “It means we will cover every single aspect of footwear,” says Mr Stewart.
But the online business is one of the most exciting strands of the firm's operations. It has its own website — www.robinsons shoes.com — from which it sells several pairs of shoes a day and it also has a presence on Amazon and eBay — where sales are higher. Even though the internet operation is still developing, sales online already outstrip those from the men's shop.
“We want to develop as much as possible,” says Mr Stewart. Our aim is to become the biggest and best in Ireland.”
It is a grand ambition, but an achievable one.
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