Mc Elhinneys 40 years on

McElhinneys Store Front
McElhinneys Store Front

As one of the few independent family department stores left in Ireland and UK, McElhinneys Department Store see’s no boundaries with customers locally, nationally and internationally – the opportunities are endless. We caught up with Roisin Woods in the store who assisted us in putting this article together.

Back in the late 1960’s, John Mc Elhinney served his apprenticeship as a drapery assistant for Frank Dunleavy’s shop in Ballybofey. Soon the young entrepreneur, realised there was an opportunity to bring everyday essentials to the rural community, so he purchased a van and went door to door, selling clothing and household goods.

In 1971, John opened his first shop in Glenfin Street, Ballybofey, and with only 300sqft space it was filled to rafters with clothing, bedlinen, lino and much more offering value, choice and great customer service. The business blossomed with people travelling from all over Donegal and the Northwest.

Amidst tough economic times, John relocated to Navenny Street, Ballybofey in 1976, completely renovating the premises with an ultra modern shop fit, offering an unrivalled selection and employing eight people. In 1977, they started to sell bridal wear.

It wasn’t long until they were on the move again, relocating to its current location on Main Street Ballybofey in December of 1979 and undergoing a renovation in 1982 leaving the store as one the most modern buildings in the North West. With 28,800sq ft and 9 departments offering cosmetics, fabrics, sports, footwear, bridal, ladies, coffee bar, jewellery and image boutique it couldn’t be further away from the small shop in Glenfinn Street where it all began.

Dark days followed when on 21st September 1985, the banks of the river Finn burst and the Twin Towns were flooded, with Mc Elhinneys immersed in almost five feet of water. In the days after, the clean-up began, over £150,000 worth of stock in the curtain and household departments was destroyed. It was a very tough time for all retailers, the thirty employees and residents of the Twin Towns.

The store opened shortly after and in true Mc Elhinneys style, John continued to develop and improve the shopping experience and in December 1986 opened the £1million pound extension to the Main Street store, offering three floors spanning over 60,000sqft of shopper’s paradise. Described by a local journalist as ‘nothing compares to the new Mc Elhinneys premises in the 26 counties, it is undoubtedly the most modern premises in Ireland today’.

However, just two months after the grand opening, Mc Elhinneys Department Store was devastated on 7th February 1987 following a firebomb attack that caused a raging fire to ravage the three storey building. In the days that followed, John Mc Elhinney described it as ‘a slow decent into hell; the further we walked into the building the darker it got’. With 80 employees affected, over 600 suppliers and over one million pounds worth of stock destroyed, it was hard to see anyway forward for the store.

But true to form, John supported by colleagues and the local community reopened the store in November of 1987 offering unprecedented choice, value and customer service. The store re- opened in just 9 months due to the business acumen and retail awareness of John Mc Elhinney.

Mc Elhinneys Department Store was recognised in 2012 as Retailer of the Year by Retail Excellence. Having the ability to continually adapt and react to the fast changing world of retail and fashion has ensured the success of the store.

The department store has grown from strength to strength, continually updating and modernising and it now operates from a 90,000sq ft building, employs over 170 people and has more than 1,500 suppliers many of whom are Irish.

The plan has continued to evolve with the launch of McElhinneys two websites in 2012, and The Bridal Rooms website showcases the latest wedding and occasion wear collections while allowing customers to request appointements, establish my favourites list, purchase wedding dresses. showcases the very best of McElhinneys offering womens, mens, kids, gift and home and beauty allowing customers from all over the world the opportunity to shop the much loved Donegal store. Both websites have been recognized nationally winning Bridal Website of the Year 2013 by, and nominated as one of the Top 5 Websites in Ireland 2013 by Retail Excellence and nominated to represent Ireland in the European Website awards 2014.

McElhinneys recognises the very difficult economic times in an increasingly competitive sector and sympathizes with other independent retailers across the country that have been forced to cease trading. ‘Independent businesses have been the backbone to this country for decades helping to showcase Irish culture, which is why we should all support them whatever way we can’ says John Mc Elhinney.

The foundation on which the store has grown is always based on choice, value for money and genuine customer service which is why the store has a high colleague customer ratio. ‘The customer is always our main focus, and we must not loose sight of that’ says John.

With this huge achievement John has admirably remained modest. “There was never any master plan” he says. “Things just evolved, I thank all our customers throughout the years for their custom and loyal support.”