During the most challenging and unprecedented of times presented by the Covid-19 public health emergency, Clare Marts Ltd. have adapted brilliantly to not only survive but thrive. We touched base with mart manager Martin McNamara to discuss the hugely successful graduation to an online platform and how this major development will tie into his future vision of Clare Marts.
Clare Marts Ltd. have been providing essential services to local farmers for more than six decades. Faced with immense challenges over the past 15 months and counting, they have stood up to be counted, proving the truth in the old Darwinian adage than when the going gets tough the tough get going.
When the plague of Covid arrived to our shores in the Spring of 2020 and we were faced with the first wave of national lockdowns, both the short-term feasibility and long-term viability of this magnificent farmer-owned co-operative (consisting of no fewer than 2,500 shareholders) were called into question.
The solution was to introduce an online sales platform. This was done seamlessly in a skilled, modern and co-ordinated way, the result being that Clare Marts has managed to go from strength to strength despite having been backed into a corner that might have finished off many businesses that were less flexible and progressive.
While their hand may have been forced to eventually move to provide online sales, mart manager Martin McNamara says there will be no looking back. To the contrary, the online platform will remain a key component of the farmer-focussed Clare Marts offering moving forward:
“It was definitely a changed way of doing business but people have adapted to the technology very quickly and thankfully we have been able to move forward and keep functioning. We’ve been able to trade very successfully across the online platforms and – most importantly – have continued to provide an excellent service to farmers.”
For long spells during the restrictions, the marts themselves have been closed to the public and Clare Marts were forced to trade exclusively online on two separate occasions… “At the beginning of the crisis, we started off completely online. We then had a combination of online and in-ring sales but, from the beginning of 2021 up until the middle of May, we were operating completely online again.” As of mid-May, buyers and sellers were once more allowed to return to Clare Marts but under the strictest of protocols.
For online sales, a drop-and-go policy is operational. “Sellers drop the stock off and buyers can come in and view it by appointment if they so wish. They can then make a bid or buy remotely. For the most part, it worked out really well,” Martin continues. “As of May 17th, we were allowed to have a dual operation again and people were allowed back in the ring subject to social distancing and wearing facemasks.
“The reality is that this has brought our industry forward ten years in one great leap and internet sales will remain a crucial part of business whether we get back fully to normal or not. We will be continuing with online sales no matter what happens.”
Established in 1959 and with branches in Ennis, Scariff, Kilfenora, Kilrush, Clare Marts provides a key role in bringing animal buyers and sellers together in County Clare, which is renowned for the production of top quality weanlings, beef and store bullocks and heifers, which are produced from a well-established suckler base within the local region. Suckling is suited to Clare due to average land type and many fragmented holdings.
The recent genesis of an online sales platform means farmers in the Banner County can now access a bigger market, with animal sales now possible to buyers island-wide.
“Online sales is something that some Irish marts – including ourselves – had looked at ten years ago but there was a general consensus here that it wouldn’t work. However, it has now been proven without any doubt that it can work when it has to. Despite some issues with broadband, the online platform has worked very well and it has been a very positive development. We have internet facilities at all four of our locations and it has worked extremely well.
“Figures up until the end of April, 2021 show that cattle sales were similar to the same period in 2019, while sheep sales are ahead of where we were two years ago. All of those sales took place online, so it is very encouraging.
“We’ve been providing this service out of necessity since May / June 2020 and the reality at the time was that if you didn’t do it you would get left behind and would no longer be in a position to continue providing excellent services to customers. You can log in and view the sales from literally anywhere in the world and people have become accustomed to it now. It’s something they take for granted now and we won’t be withdrawing this service.”
Indeed, when the detailed history of Clare Marts is being written at some point in the future, 2020/21 will be documented as a landmark period, when the pandemic struck and the face of the business changed forever as online sales were embraced for the first time. “It would be fair to say that this has consumed the business over the past twelve months,” Martin concedes. “It was a leap of faith and it had to happen fast. We developed it and rolled it out quickly and we are now fine-tuning the process, which is here to stay.
“We find that sellers are extremely happy with it as the market is broadened to nationwide once the potential buyers are approved to bid,” the Clare man continues. “Due to the shortage of beef and store cattle up there, a lot of our stock is going to Northern Ireland, for example. From the buyer’s point of view, they have a very clear image of the animal on their screen and many of them are happy to trade on this platform rather than going physically to view the stock. People who have set up at home are saving themselves a lot of time – and they are more than happy with the product they are getting.”
Looking at the long-term future, the manager of Clare Marts feels that the physical, personal element of the business will always be essential. While online sales will remain, they will never replace the real thing!
“Social interaction has been the big loser in the past twelve months or so and that is a vital aspect of what we are all about,” he concludes. “People like to come in and observe what’s going on, to spend time here and to get lunch and meet friends and neighbours. We can’t lose that important human element.
“For many, coming to the mart would be one of their only social outlets. We’re very keen to get that back at full capacity as soon as we can. Hopefully in the late summer, as the vaccination programme gathers pace, we will be able to get all our indoor facilities fully open as well. When that happens, we’ll be able to offer farmers the best of both worlds!”
Clare Marts Ltd.
Tel: 065 6824411
Fax: 065 6829978
Email: [email protected]
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 5, September/October 2021