The Sept. 11 attack virtually halted economic activity in the U.S. for several days and what was already a downturn in the U.S. economy began to accelerate in the weeks that followed the attacks, What’s more, earlier in the year, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, though primarily in Britain, had sharply curtailed travel from the U.S. to Ireland.
After 9/11, the combined travel curtailment was so steep that Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, almost went out of business.
Enterprise Ireland, the Irish government agency charged with promoting the production, marketing and selling of Irish-made products, is not alone in looking at 2001 as a year to forget, at least in a business sense.
The EI annual report for 2001, released at the beginning of this year, stated that the impact of foot-and-mouth disease and the tragic events of Sept. 11 had imposed a “curtailment” of a number of market focused activities.
“The sharp downturn in the U.S. economy in 2001 slowed the rate of sales growth by Irish companies doing business in the market,” the report stated.
But there was a positive twist to what was, overall, a gloomy story.
“Many of those companies, however, are performing much better than had been expected and a positive outturn is anticipated,” the report added.
The report played up the fact that the Irish export sector was anything but giving up on the U.S. market, noting that the number of offices established by Irish companies in the U.S., primarily in the high tech sectors, increased during the year by 20 percent, to 249.
Almost a year later, and with the all-important Christmas buying season already well under way, Enterprise Ireland is seeing signs of a revival of prospects for Irish exporters, though it is by no means guaranteed or universal.
According to Ruari Curtin, vice president for consumer products at EI, the prospects for exporters and products depend heavily right now on taking the chance to promote and market and individual product.
“After Sept. 11, all the retailers were really petrified,” Curtin said last week. “There was no benchmark by which to judge the economic and business fallout from such an event. There had been nothing like it before.”
What happened, he said, was that buying by retailers fell off because they feared not being able to get the orders filled or, if they were, that the orders would simply not sell by Christmas.
“In the end, it wasn’t as bad as first expected, though sales were not what they had been a year before,” Curtin said.
Now, one year later, there is still hesitancy and uncertainty. But Curtin also points to a renewed sense that at least potential has returned to the market.
“Many retailers are feeling the pinch, but some are doing better than others,” he said. “Those that are brave about it, active in promoting their products, are doing better. Those that are hesitating, sitting back, are definitely suffering.
“It all really comes down to the individual retailers and manufacturers and how creative they are.”
So what’s doing well?
A lot of Celtic-style jewelry lines, such as Claddagh, are doing well, according to Curtin.
And, in a reminder of the stories of so many Claddagh rings and pendants being found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, it seems that the message in the product is playing well to the tenor of our times.
“There is a symbolism and meaning in these products,” Curtin said. “They represent love, friendship and loyalty and people use them to get in closer touch with their loved ones.
“When you think about it, Irish jewelry is more than what you see. There are stories told through the medium of the jewelry.”
There’s more than just a literal silver lining to the dark economic cloud as far as Enterprise Ireland is concerned. It comes in the form of the 600 Irish stores across the U.S. According to Curtin, while there are difficulties right now in reading the minds of consumers in the context of mainstream retailing, the Irish stores are a different story.
“Consumers go into these stores expecting and wanting to see products made in Ireland,” he said.
Apart from jewelry, Curtin said that Irish smoked salmon, being marketed as a superior product, is now selling well, as are crystal glass brands, most especially Heritage and Galway. EI, he said, is also hoping for a revival in sales of woolens this winter.
Whatever about other events last year, the exceptionally mild winter in the northeastern U.S. states resulted in a negative effect on the sales of Irish woolen products such as sweaters.
“A colder winter will make a difference,” Curtin said. “One thing that works for retailers of Irish products in an economy such as this is that people are buying fewer big-ticket items such as a cars. So there is money about for smaller goods such as jewelry, pottery and crystal.
“Indeed, some people would argue that a recession is good for the gift industry,” Curtin said.
This assessment was backed up by Kathleen Alcock, who runs Kathleen’s of Donegal in Rockville Centre, Long Island.
“We’re very well stocked this year and not at all worried about prospects for Christmas,” she said.
She added that jewelry manufacturers in Ireland had been “pulling out all the stops” with a large number of new designs for this year’s Christmas season.
“We’re talking to the customers and really nobody is making dark predictions,” she said. “People are feeling confident about Christmas.”
Alcock said that one vital change that has taken place in the gift store business is that manufacturers in Ireland will now guarantee overnight delivery.
“It’s no longer a case of a three- or four-week wait for an item that the customer wants,” she said.