Podcast Episode 107: Ladonna McCaran | Manage From Your Customers' Viewpoint

Ladonna McCaran | Manage From Your Customers' Viewpoint

Ladonna McCarran, Co-Owner The Pantry, Nook & Cranny, Rose & Alice Handcrafted Soaps talks about how kismet allowed her to grasp opportunities and run with them.


Tell me something good about retail

Ladonna McCaran: Manage From Your Customers' Viewpoint



Three takeaways:

• Don't be afraid to think laterally

• Trust your instincts to buy expensive items

• Manage your business from your customer's viewpoint


Ladonna: Ladonna McCartan is my name. I have a business...a couple of businesses in Portlaoise, Ireland with Mark, my partner. I suppose the first little business that we have is a cafe. It's called The Pantry and a business that we took over four years ago, not by design. It happened rather quickly in fact. It was a place that we liked to go for a coffee ourselves, we felt very comfortable there and kind of had a few ideas about what we might do if ever we might own the property. And lo and behold a few months later it became ours. 

Bob: Had you ever been in the restaurant business? 

Ladonna: No, we didn't... No, my background is in hotel sales and marketing. Mark's an accountant, he's been in practice for most of his life. And so it was a real right turn for us. 

Bob: These are young people by the way listeners, they are not like 70 years old. These are people like you and I who just decided, "I'm gonna do something different."

Ladonna: Thank you Bob. That's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me in a long time, long time. Took on The Pantry and we retained the staff that were there. There was a really super team there which we had noticed and we were very happy that they stayed on with us. So that was a really big help. Bear in mind we didn't know how to make coffee, run a kitchen and do all the other multitude of things that come with running a food outlet. 
Bob: So how did you succeed with that? 

Ladonna: Well...

Bob: Just true grit, you just said we're gonna find a way.

Ladonna: Absolutely, the team were superb and it was a very quick learning curve from our point of view. I suppose the fact that Mark's an accountant was helpful because it enabled us to nail down KPIs very quickly.

Bob: And then you decided that wasn't enough. You had to buy a gift shop.

Ladonna: Yeah, well when we were chatting with our customers, it became obvious that a lot of people were maybe leaving the town to go and find a gift when they had maybe a landmark occasion or a wedding or something special, something unique. The kind of line that we heard quite a bit at the cafe, "Gotta head off today. I'm going to Dublin, I'm going to somebody, somewhere locally. I've gotta get something special for..." and maybe it was just a habit, I don't know. So we decided that we would open a gift shop that offered maybe gifts that you mightn't find on the high street normally, unusual gifts. Things that might surprise you to find in a gift shop that traditionally you might not associate with a gift shop. So look we were brave or mad, one of the two. I don't know. We're still in the business, and that's...we're in our fourth year now. 

Bob: That's right and then you had a supplier who decided to move back from Ireland to America so...

Ladonna: Correct.

Bob. You weren't about to let that go because you were doing well with their soap, so what did you do with that?

Ladonna: Absolutely well brave or even madder, we took on that business, that was a soap making business, a lovely little business actually, set up by an American lady. Yes, so she started making soap actually at her kitchen table. And started making the soaps of markets, and we heard that this soap was being made locally in Tullylish [SP]. We approached her and asked her would she consider having us sell it for her in our shop and it was very successful. And unfortunately then, she decided to relocate to the west coast. She missed real estate, went back to where she was maybe more comfortable. She called to say that the business was going to be wound down. So we were distraught at that stage. And so were our customers, they really...well I think they would have been. We didn't tell our customers. Mark and I were sitting at our own kitchen table one evening looking at a variety of other alternative soap providers from Ireland. And he looked across the table at me across a mountain of soap bars and price lists and said, "LaDonna, are you thinking what I'm thinking?" And I said, "Oh god, I think I am." And he said, "Do you think we could do this?" And the magic words, Bob, "It can't be that difficult." At that point I should have said, "Remember the time when we bought a cafe and we didn't know anything about running a cafe and you know, it took us a while?" But anyway long story short, we purchased the business and learned how to make soap in the traditional way. Again we retained a super member of staff that was working part time with the former owner. We now make soap distributing to 30 stockists in Ireland. But it's a fundamental part of what we'd like to do ultimately, with the other businesses it would make sense to have them in one location. And that's ultimately preferred.

Bob: It makes a bigger destination and all that.

Ladonna: It does, and there's just a lot of synergy. Natural synergy between a coffee shop and a gift shop and then having a workshop nearby where the soap can be, you know there's a little bit of theater maybe going on.

Bob: So what do you think your biggest challenge has been in the last three years?

Ladonna: Finding time to sleep, is certainly one thing. It's been a very very busy time but busy in a productive way. We're very energized by what we do, we love what we do.

Bob: You shall be able to tell that from the way she talks, she's like the number one cheerleader for this town I think. 

Ladonna: No, it's actually balance and I'm trying to prioritize. The difficulty for us hasn't been what do we do next, or have we any ideas. That's not to say that we've reached our destination. We absolutely haven't. We're just enjoying the journey in getting there.

Bob: That's the key, you don't hate it.

Ladonna: Absolutely no, we get up every morning and you know we are in good form and we know what has to be done most of the time. And we just don't have enough time to finish. Before you know it, it's six, seven, eight o'clock and darn. Gotta get something to eat. Gotta do something .

Bob: Get a pint... 

Ladonna: Yeah, exactly, and we do that from time to time, of course. Yes.

Bob: What do you think the greatest advice you ever got about your business was? Greatest business advice?

Ladonna: First thing that comes to mind is to make an informed decision but not to be afraid to think laterally. Not to make a decision just because it's safe. 

Bob: That's how you end up with The Pantry.

Ladonna: Oh, absolutely, yes, absolutely.

Bob: Because I'm sure with Mark's background as an accountant, you could have outlined all the reasons it didn't work.

Ladonna: Well he certainly could have outlined all the reasons...all the risks we were taking. But he, Mark's always wanted to work for himself. And he's a good all-around business sense. He tends to be the shy and retiring person where I'm as you can gather a little bit more...

Bob: A little more out there.

Ladonna: A little bit more out there, so we complement each other a little bit in business. And obviously you can't do it on your own. We've recruited...we've retained and recruited further staff and retained a very good team. And that's helpful you know, they understand what we're trying to achieve. And are excited with us, you know they've helped us to build our little business to where it is now.

Bob: Well, so you were in, you were in big corporations. What from that were able to take here that you think other business owners may not? Is there something that you think you took from your previous job that enabled you to be able to do this job so well? 

Ladonna: Mark particularly had the transferable skills. In any business I think you need an accountant. I certainly couldn't have done that job. I never wanted to, don't like that stuff, icky stuff. I liked the notion of selling to people and helping them reach a decision and understanding customer behavior. And I liked that element, it was very similar in my previous job. Suppose I liked the challenge of closing a sale fundamentally.

Bob: Wow, this is music to my ears, listeners. This is great.

Ladonna: And the whole element of customer relationship management. And I think that is...it would have been something that we did over a longer period in hotel world. Because we were working with people for years and whether your journey in say the gift shop for example may be shorter, it's the principles are still the same. The principles are still the same and I enjoy that very much, yeah, yeah.

Bob: And you brought me here to Portlaoise. 

Ladonna: We did...

Bob: Why in the world did you all think of bringing me to Portlaoise?

Ladonna: Well, funny story. Allison Browne who is one of the owners of Gerry Browne Jewellers. Allison is...well she's a neighbor across the road. Our cafe is opposite her lovely jeweler's shop. And so we're part of the business community and we're pals. IAnd Allison and I have coffee meetings every now and then to discuss, shoot the breeze and that and one morning we were talking about...we share information and things like that. And we were talking about have you seen this guy, The Retail Doctor? Oh my god, do you know him too? Yeah, he's fantastic. Did you see his blog this morning? Did you see his post? And because a lot of what you have been saying on your social media posts are totally relevant to us, you know a small business and that's whether we, you're talking to a cafe or a gift shop or a jeweler's shop. It's a customer facing environment so we would compare notes on what we'd learned from the evening before. Which was great and so we're both members of Retail Excellence Ireland, an association for retail members. 

She came skipping down the street to me one day and said, "Guess who's speaking at the retailer retreat this year in Dublin?" And I said, "I don't know, I haven't seen it yet." "Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor!" And so I was delighted, we were delighted and we decided there and then we were absolutely going. And she said to me, "God, wouldn't it be nice if we could get Bob down to two Portlaoise?" I said, "Yeah, imagine, wouldn't that be great?" And that comment coincided with the establishment of a team, a town renewal team which we have set up just recently in Portlaoise. A group of like-minded people from all elements of the community, business social community, parts of the community and who really just working with local authorities. I suppose just decided that look it's time to come together and try and make our town a better place to work, live, socialize, regenerate the town essentially. I suppose we're fired up by that and Allison and I are on the team. And we didn't even have an action after that, the next time I was talking to Allison, "You know, I sent Bob off an email. Sure, what harm can I do?" I said for a place here. And she rang me back then to say, "Oh, LaDonna he's available, he's available to come, what are we gonna do?" So we approached our Council and our enterprise office locally and asked them for their support. Outlined the benefit that we felt it would have for our business community. And they were on board very quickly. And then we set about telling our colleagues and business that Bob Phibbs is coming to town and you need to be there. 

Bob: You got a huge audience. People didn't think that you'd have that many people. 

Ladonna: No, they didn't. They absolutely didn't.

Bob: People think that they're all alone and you know that oh we couldn't do this. We get caught up in this well we can't. It's kind of like the old story you know, how many guys would walk up to the pretty girl and ask her for date? And they're like, "Oh, I could never get a date." But you never knew that that the chance was always 50/50.

Ladonna: Yes.

Bob: But we always make we in our minds it's like. Oh it's 90% not possible. But it's always 50/50.

Ladonna: That's right, yeah.

Bob: You are an entrepreneur. It's like you buy The Pantry. It could go really great, could go bad but at least we're even odds. . 

Ladonna: That's it. That's it. 

Bob: You know there isn't someone out there that's gonna magically make it better.

Ladonna: Yeah, that's very true and you know that there was after your talk last night. There was tremendous energy in the room. And you know I felt that the doors of the conference room burst open afterwards. And it was like this flowing out of energy. I could feel it was it was tangible, it was I and even with people that I spoke to afterwards.They had all made mental notes in terms of what they were going back to their business to do. And you could feel that energy. And you know there's no point in having one or two people who are enthusiastic about making changes and continuously improving themselves. We need a whole community thinking the same way and I felt last night that that was very much the start of it, but the great challenge for us... I suppose adding another baby to the family as it were has been a challenge. But because you want it to be instant and you want it to fit.

Bob: And you can't be in all three places at once, so that's the hard thing.

Ladonna: That's exactly, yes.

Bob: You're a hands-on person I think.

Ladonna: Very much so, very much so, yeah. I wanna do it all.

Bob: So you have to trust that, I'm not at the cafe they can do the job. She's not here, he can do the job. But this podcast is called, "Tell Me Something Great About Retail." So tell me something great about retail, what do you like about it?

Ladonna: I think I like the multitude of experiences that it gives you. The things that it opens you up to like all the things you have to be to be a good retailer or to try to be a good retailer. So you've gotta have some element of an understanding of business. And you it keeps you driving, it keeps you wanting to be better. We're relatively new to retail, just new to it in the last four years but I think it's an exciting world to be in. It has its challenges, certainly it has. But I think there are answers to those challenges and it keeps you looking for those answers. I like it for that reason.

Bob: I like that, you're not stuck in the same place doing the same thing. That's for sure. Every day is probably a little different. So tell me a great customer story. What's a story that you were part of somebody's life in? 

Ladonna: So I said to you at the outset that our gift shop, one of our missions was to be the kind of place that you came into and didn't really know what you might find. But hopefully you would know that we would have something that would be suitable. Which is a bit of a challenge because you're covering a lot of ground there. So anyway with that in mind we found we were heading off to our trade fairs and to seek out new suppliers of unusual goods, quirky stuff and unusual things that you might can't see anywhere else.

Bob: It's good quirky by the way, not quirky quirky, I just had to say that. Not dollar store quirky, just so we know.

Ladonna: Could have been lost and in translation there, thank you for that. So we found this company called Edge Sculpture. They make really unusual beautiful sculpture, animal sculptures largely. Hand cast out of clay, hand-painted, really beautiful sculpting.

Bob: Dramatic pieces, yeah.

Ladonna: Dramatic pieces and we were captivated by the stand Mark and I when we went to the fair. I just came upon this company and Mark picked up an orangutan sculpture as you do. And I said, "Seriously Mark, you know what, I don't know, like there's being out there and there's being way out there in isolation. Is that the kind of item that you would expect to see in a gift shop?" And he said, "Well, it caught my attention, it caught yours. We've spent the last 25 minutes here. I really like it." I said, "Let's go talk to them." So we went to talk to the representative on the stand and she said the minimum order quantity was 10 pieces. And it represented a significant investment on our part and there was no negotiation on that. We went for coffee as we do. That's the accountant, if it was me I would have bought them there. The accountant said wait. 

Bob: Wait.

Ladonna: Wait, exactly.

Bob: Be prudent.

Ladonna: Absolutely, one of them was a beautiful lion's head. Would remind you of "The Lion King" and we bought it in that kind of coloring with kind of a goldy brown coloring. And I remember very well the first day the orders of the delivery came and a huge amount of boxes, these are very precious pieces. They're all boxed up with polystyrene and then another box inside of that. So the delivery itself was quite spectacular and I thought where are we gonna store all these things? Took them out, put them on display and I thought, "Oh dear God, please tell me we haven't made a mistake." A week later a customer walked into the shop and said to me, "I adore that lion's head. How much is the piece?" And I told him and he said, "I'll buy it. My best friend is the director of nutrition in Dublin Zoo. He's getting married in September and that's perfect." And I just thought, "Wow, that's fantastic, that's brilliant." And then I thought, "Okay, how many other people that have relations that work in animal zoos are going to come?" And that was maybe a year and a half ago. We've had 70 pieces through our shop since. So it was the right decision then.

Bob: And these are very fairly expensive for your area, there's nothing like them in this area I don't think. 

Ladonna: There are only three distributors in Ireland actually. 

Bob: In the whole country!  It's not a safe choice for a gift store.

Ladonna: It's not safe but you know that's the whole thing and it goes back to what I said earlier about the advice that I got was, if in your gut you feel something is right it becomes a calculated risk, not a risk. It's a calculated risk. Well, once the accountant did all the financial calculations first and that worked for us.

Bob: Yeah, you know it's like what we talked about. When I was here we worked on windows with Allison's jewelry store and we talked about how she need a showpiece item. And that's what you a need for the window, because that's what tells people like this is my point of view. This is the kind of merchandise you'll see. Peak your interest like, let's go see what else. And that's really what you bought with your heads and all this because they made a very dramatic statement.

Ladonna: They did and they were a lovely piece for the window. And yeah.

Bob: People talk about them?

Ladonna: They do, they do and they done and whether they like them or don't like them they are a talking piece. I said to somebody that man come into the shop recently. He was just having his car serviced as it turned out at the local garage. And he come in and I greeted him and he very quickly said to me, "Yeah, I'm just having a look around while my car's being serviced." And I said, "Yeah, yeah, that's quite all right, enjoy the browse. But have you heard the one about the guy that come in for a browse and left with a gorilla head?" And he laughed and we chatted and he bought two cards that day and a candle for his wife. So it wasn't a bad transaction after all.

Bob: But see you found a way to get to him, see that's my thing.

Ladonna: Only because I looked at your blog and took your advice.

Bob: Oh my gosh, well you're so gracious. You know I talked about this that the whole idea if we just boil retail down to the basics. The thing that has to happen that first few minutes is the customer's gotta say, "I'm glad I met you." And once that mark, that box gets checked off the world opens up. Because now I get a joke, now you know you heard the one about the guy who walks in for nothing ends up with a gorilla head. You've had to find a way to get him to laugh and now he buys something else because it's like, "Oh, I can relax. I like this." And then they they feel like, "I want to have that relationship again. I had such a good time with them I wanna go back." And so you know we're getting the end of our time here but I think what you're really showing is an entrepreneur has this idea that I think I can do this. Believing in yourself enough and knowing that you'll figure it out. But then also being willing to say I really appreciate that Mark is the one that said we should buy these because both of you were taken by it. There isn't a logical decision but look we both...that gives us what we need. So here we are, your friend has come to Portlaoise. She's coming to The Pantry and she wants to talk to you. And she stops and she says, "I'm thinking of opening my own store." What would you tell her?

Ladonna:I would tell her not to underestimate the task, because sometimes people let's say only see the...they're coming at it from a customer point of view. They hopefully have had a very nice experience and they're thinking, "I'd really love to have something like this." What they may not appreciate and what they come to appreciate is that, in order to have that nice experience there is an awful lot of work that happens underneath the surface. And it's the ability to do that kind of work and make that happen that is the question you need to be asking yourself. So I would just say to somebody to have, to speak, to try and learn as much they can. Other cafes or shops or outlets that they enjoy being in and ask the frank questions, ask questions in terms of what realistically is involved and if you feel that is something...if that's the challenge that you're up for, well go for it.

Bob: I think that's brilliant, the idea of a [inaudible 00:21:34] being a consumer and in Arizona [inaudible 00:21:37] Sedona. There's a bunch of bed-and-breakfasts for sale. Like all the time. And in fact your local real estate person is like, "Oh yeah, tourists come here. And they get all excited about the idea of being a bed-and-breakfast and they wanna buy one. And then once they start running it, it's like I don't want people in my house." But that's the difference. Consumer, it's great, but the other side there is a different thing. Know what the backside looks like. I think sometimes people buy into the dream as a consumer. And sure it's nice to buy product until it's your product sitting on their sales floor and it's not selling and then you're just looking at it every day feeling you know, anxious.

Ladonna: Yes.

Bob: So as long as you understand that there's another side to it, I like that. That's a good thing.

Ladonna: I think you've covered everything, Bob. Absolutely. Yeah.

Bob: Absolutely.

Ladonna: Yeah, just keep listening and at that I would say to keep listening into all of your social media podcasts and things. And I'm not saying that just because we're sitting here having a conversation. I mean that quite genuinely. I think for me and for Mark in our business which is a small business really. We employ 14 people, we're a small business but to have access to the extent of advice, information and sharing you've... We couldn't afford it really quite honestly and we get our bite-size chunks every weekend with it's made a real difference to us. And you made the world a smaller place. That's terrific.

Bob: That's the best place I can think of to end it. Thank you for joining us on this edition of "Tell Me Something Great About Retail" and until next time it's the Retail Doc, out.


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