Dedicated to discounting
Olivia McLoughlin has always loved the buzz of retail and as country manager for retail with Poundland and Dealz she is helping shape the growth of a budget giant with around 100 stores across the Island of Ireland. This month she tells NR why she’s still excited to keep driving herself and the business on
“I have never done anything else since I left college and I have never wanted to do anything else,” says Olivia McLoughlin of her life in retail.
“I love being in a business which has so much energy and pace and due to the transformation, it feels like a young and vibrant business and only on the cusp of what we can achieve.
“It is also exciting to me that, while the Dealz brand was born in Ireland, it now operates across Europe, currently trading from over 200 locations.
“Retail is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it and certainly I have loved it since my first day. I have no aspirations to do anything else.”
While Olivia already feels like part of the family with Poundland & Dealz the truth of the matter is she only entered the fold two years ago, taking on a job she’s been training for all her life.
“My whole career has been spent in retail and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
“I joined Dealz & Poundland from Dixons Carphone where I was Regional Sales Manager, before that I was Head of Retail Operations at Carraig Donn and I also spent just over 12 years at Claire’s Accessories where I was Regional Sales Manager.
“Claire’s Accessories had a strong people culture while Dixons Carphone was very much about the helping customers with their needs. The people culture fits very nicely with Dealz & Poundland as we’ve always had people at the forefront of who we are.
“We look at how we incorporate people-led and service-led agendas, which, historically, may not have been what our customers would necessarily expect from discount retailers.”
Perhaps now more than ever that people-led ethos had served the discount retailer well as it catered for those who themselves counting the pennies in the mouth of Covid.
Olivia explained: “It’s provided an opportunity to continue to offer great value to our customers who have always been price conscious but found themselves in a difficult situation due to the pandemic.
“It’s important to point out that we never changed our pricing. While others in retail who maybe operate with a high/low strategy have removed promotions etc, we run on set pricing.
“This means we’ve been able to maintain our prices and offer great value to all of our customers which has been a great thing to be able to do during the pandemic.”
And it isn’t just its customers that Poundland and Dealz are looking out for, having recently announced it was giving staff an extra week’s holiday and doubling discounts to staff as a thank you for their hard work and dedication.
“Covid has been very difficult for everyone, and our teams and colleagues stepped up at a very difficult time,” Olivia told us.
“As an essential retailer we remained open, but we were presented with a lot of challenges during this period. We had periods when staff were needing to isolate which meant some stores had fewer staff than ever before. But for those colleagues who could come to work safely to support the business, they really went above and beyond.
“For us, it was a simple decision to be able to give them an extra week’s holidays and to close on New Year’s Day and Boxing Day so they could spend that additional time with their families that they had previously sacrificed to make sure we were able to open and trade for our customers.”
And being good to staff is certainly no bar to business success as the ever-expanding Dealz and Poundland portfolio shows.
“It’s a very exciting time as we are very much in a period of sustained expansion and transformation,” explains Olivia.
“We recently announced a €20million investment over three years to expand our footprint across Ireland which will see us create more than 500 jobs. But it’s not just about store openings, it’s also about the transformation of our business. We’re already bringing our PEP&CO clothing and home ranges to stores which don’t currently have them.
“The chilled and frozen ranges are being rolled out in Northern Ireland and then into RoI in 2022 and we’ll continue to try new products, services and ranges.
“Of course, in Yorkshire, we’re trialling two small neighbourhood stores called Poundland Local.
“From a frozen foods point-of-view we also recently acquired the Fultons – they’re frozen food specialists who are helping power our rapid entry into that category.”
It is too an economic reality that one store’s struggles can present an opportunity for others and managing Director Barry Williams recently spoke about eyeing up high street sites left vacant by major stores.
Olivia has her own theory as to why Dealz and Poundland have prospered during the hardest of times for the high street.
“I think it’s because we have moved at pace, and we have been able to give our customers great value during tough times,” she told IFCR.
“At no time during the pandemic have we stood still, and we have no intention of standing still in the future.
“Our business has really evolved based on what our customers are telling us. We stay close to our customers, speak to them regularly and react to their needs.
“We are also looking to move to towns where we know there is demand for us. We are looking at towns where we have a Dealz or Poundland store, but we don’t have PEP&CO.”
While online shopping may have rung the death knell for some of those stores which Dealz and Poundland are now eying up as new sites, Olivia believes what they offer will always require a physical presence.
“From a discount retailing point of view there will always be a place for bricks and mortar stores, and we are certainly very proud of ours.
“In the UK, Poundland is trialling e-commerce in limited postcode areas so we can learn, but our main focus is around how we make our stores bigger and better, and places were customers want to spend more time.”
And Olivia, who joined the team two years after Barry Williams became MD, is keen to highlight how he has not only driven the business forward but also changed the culture.
“Barry has had a massive impact, especially around the transformation that we have seen.
“The biggest thing is from a culture point-of-view. As a people-led business there is very little ego within our company. All our leaders are very humble which makes this a great place to work, a great place to excel and also a safe place to fail as the culture is about bringing out the best in everyone.
“Our colleagues power this business, and our focus is also on how we can help our customers more. We walk our talk and Barry lives and breathes the values of our business which allows us to do the same.”
Those values also extend to diversity and at the same time Olivia was named as country manager for retail Sharon Sheridan was appointed country manager of trading – a high-profile all-Ireland female dream team.
“The secret of our success has been the relationship between myself and Sharon and the crossover of those functions,” explains Olivia.
“Historically, the roles were a little more separated but now everything is done in unison and both of us are involved in every single decision that is made in Ireland as a whole. We are both very proud that it is two women at the helm.”
And Olivia is hopeful that their success can inspire other women on the lower rungs of the Dealz and Poundland ladder.
“We have a really strong diversity programme at Dealz & Poundland which is something we’re very proud of and determined to keep moving forward into the future,” she tells NR.
“The diversity within our store manager population is very strong. Sharon and I were very proud to recently host an event for International Women’s Day. We invited key female leaders within our business along with other senior leaders within Dealz and Poundland and external women in business.
“The event was held to encourage our store managers to understand that they have the opportunity within our business to climb the ladder as high as they want.
“Within our apprenticeship programme in Ireland approximately 75% are females and the majority of our mentors on that programme are female also. We’re also proud that two Dealz female apprentices, who, out of 120 candidates from right across the retail sector were the top scoring apprentices this year.”
Olivia concedes that for someone like herself who is so deeply invested in the business “it can be hard to switch off and unwind” but nine or 18 holes of golf (if she’s lucky) usually does the trick.
“If we talk about being humble and being there for our colleagues on the shop floor, then we have to have authenticity with it. If some of our colleagues start at 5am and others finish at 10pm then I need to be available to them,” she explains.
“But our business is about striking a good work/life balance and the way I do that is by trying to get onto the golf course as often as possible and that’s in between ferrying two kids to a host of sports matches.
“I loved watching Leona Maguire flying the flag for Ireland in the Solheim Cup – she was absolutely marvellous, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the television screen.”
While dreams of following in Leona Maguire’s shoes may be just that, Olivia does have more realistic targets – the simplest of which start with reconnecting with colleagues.
“We have lived on Teams for such a long time but the tactics and creativity of how we can grow our business flow much better when you’re in a room with people
“From a personal perspective it’s about getting into our stores and when a colleague does a great job being able to give them a hug or a high five.
“We have achieved lots in the last two years despite being hampered by Covid. For me it’s about maximising the number of stores, colleagues and customers we can reach in Ireland and Northern Ireland and how can we implement strategies which are live in the UK.
“As Country Manager in Ireland, the job is by no means finished.”