business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Feargal Quinn, who turned a small chain of supermarkets in Ireland into one of the world’s most influential retail businesses, and who was seen as one of retail’s most innovative and passionate ambassadors, has passed away at age 82. Details about the cause of death have not yet been released, but he had been suffering from a series of health issues over the past few years.

Feargal - and I’m going to call him by his first name here, because he was my friend of at least 30 years - was a grand man who saw retailing not just in business terms, but also as a kind of public service that, when done well and right, could raise the spirits and improve the lives of the people who worked there and the people sho shopped there.

His book, “Crowning The Customer,” published in 1990, remains one of the best books ever written about retailing. In it, he talked about how his retailing philosophy was nurtured by his father’s business running what was known as a “holiday camp.” Families would pay one fee and come to the camp for a period of time, and there would be nothing left to sell them - the only goal was to make sure that they had such a good time that when they left, they would turn to his father and book another trip for the following summer. It was, he said, “the boomerang effect,” and he said that this should be the goal of the retail store - to be so good that people would always return. It was, in retrospect, an early definition of what these days is known as “lifetime customer value,” which stands in contrast to a more short-term, transactional mindset.

“Crowning The Customer,” by the way, is available on Amazon, as are his two other books, “Mind Your Own Business: Survive and Thrive in Good Times and Bad,” and a memoir,

“Quinntessential Feargal”. Better books about retailing you will be hard-pressed to find.

I had the great pleasure and privilege of spending time with Feargal over the years, much of it in his stores, where he delighted in spending time walking the aisles and interacting with shoppers at the front end, bagging groceries, charming the children, and acting as if customers were his personal guests. Which, of course, they were.

Thirty years ago, you could walk into a Superquinn store and walk through the bakery and the seafood department and ‘fruit & veg” and past the meat counter, and see posters with pictures and descriptions of the people who milled the flour and caught the fish and picked the tomatoes and raised the cows. Long before it was cool and trendy, Feargal was thinking about the path between the farm and the table, and was endeavoring to both shorten it and cast light upon it, which he knew would be good for his customers and good for his stores.

On a regular basis, Feargal and his team of company leaders would venture out into the stores and essentially open the books to the people who worked there. No secrets - he believed that it was important to share the numbers with employees so that they would feel like more than employees, but would feel a sense of ownership, of pride, and would treat customers like guests. Which, of course, they were.

It was Feargal who decreed that the company’s Dublin offices would never be referred to as “headquarters,” but rather as a “support office,” because this would reinforce where the business was being done and what the priorities should be. (Company employees who called it “headquarters” had to pay a modest fine.)

It was Superquinn that pioneered the idea of loyalty marketing, which would track and reward customer behavior … that was one of the first companies to test self-checkout … that utilized traceability technology to guarantee meat’s provenance from pasture to plate. Superquinn was doing “meal solutions” long before it was called that, and created “retail theater” and engaged in “experiential marketing” long before these words were bandied around by so-called experts. And it was Superquinn to which so many retailers - at least, anybody of consequence and character and ambition and taste - made pilgrimages over the years, hoping to learn a little something, or maybe just have some of Feargal’s ingenuity rub off on them.

(I dug some old pics out of the archive, and posted them below.)

Feargal’s sense of public service extended far beyond his stores. He was extraordinarily active in an organization formerly known as CIES, an alliance of global supermarket executives that was dedicated to educating and enlightening its members, with one-store independents given as much respect and credence as thousand-store chains; the annual summits, in places like Paris and Shanghai and Berlin and London and Dublin were celebrations of out-of-the-box thinking. (Its successor organization, the Consumer Goods Forum, has never caught the same magic or had the same priorities.) He also was active with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and EuroCommerce - Feargal believed that by sharing ideas and celebrating innovation, it would create the prototypical rising tide that would lift all retail boats.

His public service efforts also extended into the governmental and political. For a time he was chairman of the Irish post office, engineering innovations (long before email) that helped to reinvigorate a dying system. Even while running Superquinn, Feargal ran for and won a seat on the Irish Senate - Seanad Éireann - in 1993, where he served until 2016; I remember years ago he invited me to join him there and watch him debate, and it is one of those great memories that gave me a different view of his passionate belief in the importance of giving, not taking.

The Quinn family sold the company in 2005, correctly seeing that it was becoming almost impossible for a small company in Ireland to effectively compete on prices and for real estate. Since that time, Feargal was tireless in his advocacy for small business. He wrote a regular newspaper column and produced (with Anne O’Broin, the amazing woman who worked with him for much of his time at Superquinn, and who he would cheerfully concede was a rock star who helped make him possible) a series of television programs called “Retail Therapy” that helped troubled retailers turn things around. (It was reality television that uplifted, delivered with trademark Feargal style and race.)

Through all these accomplishments - and I am giving his life short shrift, trust me - Feargal remained quintessentially himself. He always had a kind of impish smile, with a devilish sense of humor. He loved golf. He loved wearing brightly colorful socks (and always wanted to see mine when we’d run into each other … I always disappointed on this score). I’d always get St. Patrick’s Day cards from him. He provided an early review of “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies,” the book that Michael and I wrote, and offered some guidance and suggestions about my second book, “Retail Rules.”

I did an interview with Feargal a few years ago, which you can read here. I think you’ll enjoy it, and that it’ll give you a glimpse of what made him so special to so many people. I know that I’ve spent some time this morning looking at the emails that Feargal sent me over the years… always cheerful and optimistic and lively.

My heart goes out to his family - his wife, Denise … his children, Eamonn, Stephen, Gilliane, Zoe and Donal … and his 19 grandchildren.

Feargal Quinn was a great man, a grand man, and he was my friend, and I treasure the time I got to spend with him over the years. He will be well and frequently and affectionately eulogized in coming days, by the many people whose lives and businesses he touched and made better.

This was my modest contribution, a salute to a person who opened my eyes to so much over the years, and who opened his heart to so many.

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