Heroes of the High Street: Meet man at helm of a famous Co Down business Wardens now in its 143rd year


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Keith Irvine, manager of Wardens in Newtownards

Keith Irvine, manager of Wardens in Newtownards

Freddie Parkinson

Keith Irvine outside Wardens in Newtownards

Keith Irvine outside Wardens in Newtownards

Freddie Parkinson

Wardens owner Helen Campbell

Wardens owner Helen Campbell

Founder: James Warden Snr

Founder: James Warden Snr

Wardens on Newtownards High Street many years ago

Wardens on Newtownards High Street many years ago

Keith Irvine, manager of Wardens in Newtownards

From the era when it was known as the ‘Wee Boy’s Shop’ to the varied and lively department store it is today, Keith Irvine, manager of Wardens in Newtownards, talks about the fascinating family history behind the shop.

Q. Tell me about Wardens and how and when it began.

A. We're a department store selling everything from screws to curtains and china. We sell tableware, we have a cookshop, an electrical department, furniture, interiors and hardware, and we also have a nursery department.

Right now we're trading in our 143rd year and we have 52 staff, most of whom are full-time.

Wardens was established in 1877 by James Warden, who came from a local farming family here in Newtownards.

It started out selling hardware goods and ironmongery, way back then, on the site we're still on currently today.

It was a much smaller premises on High Street over the years, then it was extended back to Court Street.

Unfortunately, four years after setting up the business James died. He was reasonably young, and in those days people sometimes had a tendency to die at any age.

Then it was taken over by his brothers Robert and George. They continued it on for a wee while.

Q. Is there a Warden family member who dominates the early history of the business?

A. James, the son of Robert who joined in 1910, had a keen eye and a keen interest and apparently was quite a bright spark when it came to retailing.

He was only 15 years of age when he started. He developed the showroom from being a hardware merchant and ironmongery into introducing china, fireplaces, and carpets.

For a long time in Newtownards it was known as the Wee Boy's Shop because he was of such a young age.

He was very, very good and we furnished lots of hotels and large houses in Co Down and Greater Belfast.

James was probably doing then what we now call interior design.

Carpets were brought in three-foot widths and they were all bound together. We still have a loft where it's nailed out where they used to measure carpets.

James died in 1975 but he was working until his later years and would have very much sat around, directing people around in a chair with a walking stick. He was very friendly.

The customer always came first and he was a no-nonsense sort of guy and very, very good at his job and kept everyone on their toes.

Q. Tell me about the present generation of Wardens who are in the shop, and perhaps the next generation who might take over?

A. James had a daughter, Helen, who married a farmer called Campbell.

Mrs Campbell is the owner today, and she's in her 70s. Originally she studied chemistry in Queen's but she was then persuaded to join the family firm.

Thankfully we also have the next generation in, we now have Jane Campbell, Helen's daughter.

Jane has some nieces and nephews, so hopefully one of them could be the next generation in.

She is in four afternoons a week so it's lovely to have her here. Helen was very, very much actively running it, though she always has had a manager and even today we have our individual department managers.

Q. And have you many long-serving members of staff?

A. Lots of our managers are now in their 50s and have been here 30 or 40 years. When I joined the business there were a couple of ladies in their 70s or early 80s and had been very loyal staff of Wardens.

In carpets, one lady had been here an awfully long time, as had another lady in the office.

When I joined people said to me: "I hope you realise that's you here until you retire."

Q. Where do your customers come from?

A. Our customer base would be within a 30-mile radius. They're mostly from Co Down and Greater Belfast.

But I wish people from further afield would make the effort to come to Newtownards and Wardens. It's a fantastic town for ladies' and gents' fashions, as well as having Wardens.

We do have coach tours from the likes of the Women's Institute and it's great to see them coming from Antrim, Lisburn and Portadown. We have our own delivery team and delivery service and we deliver anywhere in Northern Ireland.

Q. How do you guarantee good performance from staff?

A. We deeply appreciate and value all our staff. Wardens has got to where it is today from good department managers.

We don't pay commission so staff are just there to meet customers' needs and try to meet requirements. We're all about customer service and customer focus.

We still have an active hardware department. I know we're competing against the B&Qs and Homebases, but again that doesn't matter.

If you want a certain size of screw customers know they can come and get customer service at our counter rather than work through the aisles of a giant store like B&Q.

Q. What has changed over the years about the stock you sell?

A. The only thing we no longer do is fireplaces but we have expanded more into furniture and carpets.

We have a good china and giftware department and one thing we are focusing on is our interior design service and that's what we want to grow on.

The interior designers are employed by Wardens and have free access to sell everything and anything from all the departments, and perhaps furnish the whole house from it.

We make all our curtains on site, making curtains and pelmets, and have a wedding gift department, which is very successful, plus lighting and nursery, wallpaper and paint.

We're still that type of place where you can get everything from a mousetrap to a three-piece suite.

Q. Do you think the founder of Wardens would be proud of its long survival, outliving the famous Belfast department store Robinson and Cleaver, and value department stores like BHS?

A. I have no doubt about that. Maybe people did go into the city to places like Robinson and Cleaver and some of those places aren't with us anymore.

But we have a nice farming community around here and thankfully Wardens has a very loyal customer base, but you can never take that for granted and you have to work daily to keep it.

Q. How have you had to change to keep up with the times?

A. We have our old friend the internet to compete with. But we now have a brilliant full-time person who works on our own website and she is working extremely hard, so we had to get another part-time on the internet side to assist her.

We have a successful wedding department and a lot of its business would be on the internet.

We're trying to throw the net wide open and trying to get people.

I'd have no problem employing more people on that side of things. You do have to adapt to people's buying.

There are those who like to sit and feel and look at items and thankfully a greater part of our business is still coming from that base.

Q. You now have the fourth generation of the Warden family working in the business. Have you generations of shoppers, too?

A. Well, if I was asking my sales team, they'll always tell me that shoppers say: "My grandmother or grandfather used to shop here."

When we do run events we have a terrific response and the amount of people coming in and referring to past generations shopping there is amazing.

Every year at Christmas we have our Santa Band (a set of mechanical Santas which play instruments). Every year people come and ask us is our Santa Band coming out because they remember coming to see it years and years ago. It's wee simple things like that.

Every year we wonder should we bring it out as it's a bit worn out and we're forced to because people want their photo taken with the Santa Band.

It's at least 30 years old. We had a little collection around the Santa Band this year and we raised over £1,000 for charity.

Q. How has your stock evolved over the last 50 years or so?

A. Trends always do change. Wardens, like most other good furniture shops, bought stock from all your good mahogany manufacturers, which used to ship container-loads into Northern Ireland.

But all that business has gone because people are buying less expensive furniture.

I remember people would have bought furniture to pass on down to the next generation and that younger generation doesn't want that look any more.

Belleek Pottery is another great make. You wouldn't recognise today's Belleek from the china of 30 or 40 years ago and they've had to change with the times.

Q. Are wedding lists still an important part of business? What items usually go on a wedding list these days?

A. It can be anything from everyday dinner sets to essentials like toasters, kettles and ironing boards, right through to bigger items like mirrors, pictures or rugs. Our wedding list business remains good and strong.

But lots of other retailers don't do them nowadays because so many people now live together before getting married and now have all those things already. So they might say to their guests: "Can you just give us money?"

So couples tend to have everything they need and it's probably different from when I was getting married.

Q. What is the future for Wardens?

A. At Wardens, each and every department is important to us. But overall we'll just have to change to meet customer needs, should that maybe mean a bigger requirement for interior designers, and I'd be happy to bring another one or two on if that's the way we need to go. We're also trying to bring youth into the business.

Q. Why has Wardens survived?

A. I think it's just down to really, really good local support. And Mrs Campbell and her father James weren't greedy people and never took a lot of money out.

Any money that was made was reinvested or just banked. I'm not suggesting other retailers were foolish, but it was just down to a bit of good sound management and spending money wisely if it was needed.

Even today Mrs Campbell would be very, very good that way and Jane is the same. And the fact we own the property is a big help, because with business rates and other overheads, rents would be really punishing.

Q. Have you invested in the store recently?

A. We've done a new side entrance to the shop which was in great need of being done.

Once you step into the store it is like you are stepping back in time, and people do love it.

It's a big, rambling place with lots of split levels but people love it for its quirkiness.

I have made a lot of changes internally but there are restrictions because of the types of walls and so on.

But the new side entrance looks so much better, and we've put in a window there as well, and a lovely big car park on South Street.

Q. Are you hoping that the return of the Executive will mean improvements in the economy?

A. Yes. We are living in difficult times in retail. Even now I'm hoping that with a local government, that will have a great impact on things like car sales and house sales.

With no local government sitting things have gotten worse, especially with say the health service.

I just think now that some money is getting injected, and with spending it wisely, it might have a knock-on effect.

People have been holding back on bigger purchases in the £1,000-plus bracket. People now, given a bit more time, will have more confidence to go out and spend money again.

We have a wonderful offering of furniture and I'm just hoping that we will see an increase in sales.

Seven quickfire questions

What has drawn you to retail?

I did a business diploma in Enniskillen and from a very early age I knew I wanted to be in retail. I did well on the course and from then until now I've only had three jobs and they've all been in family-run showrooms.

What is your motto in business?

We are aware of the competition we have from the high street names and the online market so we have to be at the top of our game.

What would you have done if you had not gone into retail?

If I was to rewind back the clock and gone to university and not done that business course I may have become a GP. I think I've got the personality and tone

What are your hobbies?

I'm a keen gardener and I enjoy racquet sports and cycling

What is your favourite sport and team?

I like to watch football and I'll be giving away my age when I say I am a big Leeds United supporter.

What is your favourite book?

I don't have a lot of time between work and travel, but I'm always following the local press and I always read specialist magazines that focus on homes, interior design, anything that's related to the departments in our store.

How do you sum up working in independent retailing?

It's both a joy and a challenge and an industry I'm so happy to be part of.

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