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Heroes of the High Street: Alexanders department store is still in the same family but has learnt to adapt to current trends

In the third of our brilliant new series we talk to the family behind Alexanders in Markethill


Suzanne Laverty inside the Alexanders store in Markethill

Suzanne Laverty inside the Alexanders store in Markethill

Stephen Hamilton

Suzanne with her sister and business partner Johanne Maxwell

Suzanne with her sister and business partner Johanne Maxwell

Stephen Hamilton

Suzanne Laverty inside the Alexanders store in Markethill

Suzanne Laverty (60) is joint partner with her sister Johanne Maxwell (59) of the department store Alexanders in Markethill. Suzanne's eldest son David is 33 and she has triplets, Andrew, Jonathan and Katie, who are 30. Johanne is married to David and has two children, Becky (24) and Peter (21). The women took the shop over from their parents and completely renovated the interior, transforming it into the beautiful department store it is today.

Q. Suzanne, tell me about Alexanders and how and when it began.

A. Our building is very historic and dates back to 1835 when it was built by the first Earl of Gosford who lived in Gosford Castle.

It was built as a market house selling linen and all kinds of things for the village. It has served many purposes over the years and was a coal store, a joinery shop and even at one time a dance hall.

My mum and dad, Iris and Norman Alexander, bought the building in 1954 and opened a hardware shop. They had previously run a small shop in Tandragee. They both worked really long hours building up the business.

In the early years they sold furniture, carpets, beds, fridges, vinyl records, pianos - you name it and they sold it.

The very first item dad sold in July 1954 was a bicycle bell.

Dad is originally from Newcastle and mum was born in Canada and then brought up in Gracehill outside Ballymena.

My dad's sister and her husband opened the Tayto Crisp factory in Tandragee, which is why dad moved there and then when he met mum she too moved to the area.

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


The self-service restaurant

The self-service restaurant

Stephen Hamilton

A. My mum is 92 now and my dad is 93 and they both worked hard to establish the business. Dad built up the furniture side while mum concentrated on the china and giftware section.

One of her proudest moments was getting an account for Royal Doulton. It was a very prestigious company and mum thought it was important to get an account open with them, but it wasn't that easy in those days.

She went to a trade show and approached them and asked, and they said she had to buy 100 Old Country Rose tea sets. Mum nearly had a heart attack but she just smiled and said "okay". The sets flew off the shelves and she was able to order a lot more in just a few months.

It is one of her proudest moments that she was able to bring Royal Doulton to the wee village of Markethill.

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

A. Mum and dad retired in 1997 and at that point all four of us children had worked in the business. We worked every Saturday when we were children.


Suzanne with her sister and business partner Johanne Maxwell

Suzanne with her sister and business partner Johanne Maxwell

Stephen Hamilton

We all went to university. Johanne graduated in accountancy and entered the business while I spent several years in London and had a background in the hotel business. I then started to lecture in tourism at the University of Ulster.

I gave birth to triplets and I also had a little boy of two at the time, so I had to give up lecturing to take care of my family. I went into the business in 1995, and when mum and dad retired in 1997 my sister and I took it over while my brother Richard opened a new furniture shop a few doors away known as Alexanders of Markethill.

We are separate businesses, although we do work closely together.

My other sister Jane Maze also worked in the business but left to be a stay at home mum.

We have made massive changes. When we took over there was a lot of competition around us and Debenhams was opening in Newry and Craigavon.

We knew we had to upgrade the shop and diversify in order to be in competition with other shops around us. We carried out a complete refurbishment of the building over an 18-month period starting in 2003 and you wouldn't have recognised it.


The Alexanders store in Markethill

The Alexanders store in Markethill

Stephen Hamilton

The only bit that didn't change was the old stone on the outside which was in very good order.

One of the major changes was that we used to have a wee coffee shop which looked like a thatched cottage on the ground floor. It was very small and we decided to open a 96-seater self-service restaurant on the first floor.

That was one of the scariest parts of it and gave me sleepless nights worrying if it would work and if a big restaurant in a small village like ours could be a success.

On our first day the restaurant was full and we couldn't believe it. Now, in the run-up to Christmas in particular, we have queues.

We also opened a new cook shop and upgraded our interior design shop and put in a new entrance and new staircase.

Q. Have you many long-serving members of staff?


Suzanne Laverty at Alexanders

Suzanne Laverty at Alexanders

Stephen Hamilton

A. Our longest serving member of staff is Helen Riddle who has worked in our accounts office for 24 years and we have many others who have worked here for 18, 19 and 20 years.

We have 42 staff members in total and we are just so thankful to them for their loyalty and service.

We always appreciate suggestions and input from staff and we employ a lot of young people too, as we like to hear their views, and we all work together as a great team.

Q. Where do your customers come from?

A. Our customers come from all over the north and south of Ireland.

We have a huge Christmas shop which has a different theme every year and which takes over two-thirds of the building from October to December.

People come in buses to visit the Christmas shop from Bangor, Enniskillen, Dundalk, Newtownards, Londonderry and even from Monaghan and Dublin.

We've always had a great love for Christmas and people love to come and see our Christmas shop. This year we had a book theme and we had a Grinch room which the children loved and one on The Snow Queen and A Christmas Carol, and every room is different.

We do it all in-house and people come for the experience and the atmosphere.

Q. How do you guarantee good performance from staff?

A. My mother instilled in us very early on never to ask anyone to do something you would never do yourself, and my sister and I work closely with all members of staff and we spend a lot of time on the shop floor, meeting and serving customers and working alongside our staff.

We are very hands-on and we try to cultivate a team atmosphere while stressing the importance of good customer service.

And we do our best to lead by example.

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

A. When we took over in 1997 there was a massive amount of fine bone china and crystal and ornaments in the shop which we gradually reduced over the years as buying habits changed.

We still have china and a giftware department. We also made the interior design department three times bigger and now offer a complete design service with three highly qualified designers.

We offer a complete design solution from a whole room to help with selecting furniture and soft furnishings to paint colours and wallpaper, which we also sell.

Last year we added carpet and wooden flooring. We extended our cookware range in response to a growing interest in cookery and introduced a fine foods area where we do bespoke hampers.

Q. Do you think the founder of Alexanders would be proud of its long survival?

A. Mum and Dad are both very proud of how we have developed the business and they still come into the shop and talk to customers and they still have suggestions.

They realised the business had to evolve and they have been fully supportive of us.

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

A. We are both very passionate about sourcing new products from trade shows and every year we go to the spring fair in Birmingham, which is the biggest trade show of the year.

We walk miles at the show trying to find new products and looking for new ideas. We are very open to doing things differently.

Q. What generation of your family work in the business now? Have you generations of shoppers, too?

A. We are the second generation and our children have worked in the shop too, helping out during busy periods.

They all have their own careers. We would be delighted if any of them wanted to come into the shop full time but we will just have to wait and see.

We have generations of customers who still come into the shop. We have grandparents who shopped here as children who now bring their grandchildren into the restaurant for breakfast or lunch.

We also have families who make visiting our Christmas shop a family day out every year, and people who have moved away but who come home for Christmas meet up here.

It's lovely to see young children enjoying the Christmas displays as much as our older customers.

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

A. We now have a large cookware shop and our new restaurant and gift area. We have a new towel department which has worked really well for us and home fragrances, which is massive.

Before we renovated there was stuff jammed together everywhere and now we have presented things much better and we decorate each of our departments every year.

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

A. Weddings are a big part of our business.

It has changed over the years with the need for an online element and it's a very valuable service for couples.

People still want china sets, cookware and homeware items and more people are asking for interior design gift vouchers.

Q. What is the future for Alexanders?

A. We seek to evolve and change constantly and create new experiences for our customers in the shop and restaurant.

We started afternoon teas recently which is going really well and we are looking at changing our menus to cater for changing food trends.

We aim to keep offering good quality products at good prices.

Q. Why has it survived?

A. I think because we have changed with the times and have a strong family work ethic. Also, we are creative and have good displays with great attention to detail.

We offer friendly, helpful customer service and a willingness to listen to our customers and staff and get their feedback.

Q. Have you invested in the store recently?

A. Yes, in 2017 we completely refurbished our restaurant. Also in 2017, after 200 years, we had to put a new roof on and we were without a roof for four days, but thankfully it was during a hot spell in May.

Last August we also refurbished our interior design department.

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

A. Yes, we hope they look at the rates as we are baffled and shocked by the increase this year, and for small businesses to try and increase their sales to cover it is just going to be impossible.

Seven quickfire questions

Tea or coffee? Coffee.

Online store, or bricks and mortar store? Bricks and mortar.

Netflix or BBC? Netflix.

Christmas or Easter? Christmas.

Retail hero/heroine? My mum.

Favourite type of shop? Department stores.

Favourite film? Pretty Woman.

Favourite book? Gods And Kings by Lynn Austin.

Favourite band? Queen.

Best piece of advice? Never give up.

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