Originally from Pakistan, cousins Azhar Mahmood and Haroon Nawab have taken a bold plunge into convenience retailing, by opening a new Costcutter
Nov 18 2011
Ormond Quay, Dublin 8
Retailers: Azhar Mahmood and Haroon Nawab
Size: 1,869 sq ft
Demonstrating an impressive ability to gain the upper edge in business; retailers Azhar Mahmood and Haroon Nawab successfully managed to open their new city centre store on Dublin’s Ormond Quay a full week ahead of schedule. After opening the shop’s doors for the first time on Friday, 21 October 2011, ShelfLife caught up with Azhar the following week, and found that alongside his cousin and business partner Haroon, he has been kept busy adding all the necessary final touches to the fledgling c-store in recent times.
“A National Lottery offering, Dublin Bus tickets and ATM are on their way within a week,” explains Azhar, who is also planning on making sure customers know his new store has arrived in the area with a concentrated leaflet drop and advertising drive. The business certainly seemed to be progressing full steam ahead but ShelfLife wanted to know if Dublin’s latest retailing duo had any trepidations about venturing out on their own. Azhar responded that he was feeling confident the business would succeed due to its central location. The pair’s confidence has been further bolstered by their family back in Pakistan, who have shown their trust in the partners’ business plans. In fact, they were prepared to put their money where their mouths were, and invest in the new Costcutter store.
The Barry Group’s Damien Johnston, with retailers Azhar Mahmood and Haroon Nawab
A family affair
As Azhar explains: “You have a lot of trust from the bank, and from your family. The majority of the money we used to establish the store was our family’s money. If they didn’t have any confidence, especially my father and Haroon’s father, they wouldn’t have sent the money to us.” What’s more, he points out that the investment derived from his family’s fruit export business is “hard-earned money in our country,” and that “the currency difference is a lot actually”.
The family built up their business over the years by buying gardens in Pakistan, growing fruits such as mangoes and oranges, and exporting these to larger export markets. Despite his family having a sales-related background therefore, it was when Azhar came to Ireland in 2001 that he experienced his first real taste of working in retail. While studying for his degree at the Dublin Business School, Azhar started working part time in Spar, where he learnt on-the-job for 10 years between 2001 and 2011, as well as having occasional part-time jobs at department stores such as Brown Thomas and Arnott’s.
Prior to the move, he had studied computer science in Pakistan and was enticed to visit Ireland by a friend who had emigrated and relayed favourable reports of the country back home. “He said it’s really nice, you can study and you can earn as well, and he showed me how to apply for the visa,” explains Azhar. While subsequently working at Spar Glasnevin in north Dublin, he met a retailer who would become a major inspiration for him, his then boss Eddie Hayes. “I learnt a lot from that man actually; he’s responsible for all the experience that we have,” notes Azhar.
Haroon had also worked in a Spar for six years, so the two cousins reckoned they had the necessary experience to form a solid partnership in retail. “The idea was that he could cover one shift, and I could cover another shift,” says a practical-minded Azhar. The duo also benefit from having a tight-knit team of staff to support them in-store. “So far we have three girls, the two of us and another two boys so it’s a family team,” explains the retailer, who was inundated with applicants eagerly seeking roles in his new Costcutter shop.
The new Ormond Quay store has an enticing Cuisine de France bakery stand located in a prime position, to attract nearby office workers looking for a mid-morning treat
“There were many, many CVs. When we needed two staff, we had nearly 300 plus CVs for just two jobs,” says Azhar, who explains more about how his current staff managed to clinch the available jobs. “Among the boys, one of them is a friend of mine who worked at Spar as well for five years, and now works here in the evenings. Agata works on the deli, and has three years of experience in this area. Then we have an Irish lady Mary, who works for us at midday during the lunch hours. She previously worked at the Rotunda Hospital at the deli there for four to five years. Another staff member is from Poland as well, Peter, he’s working for Centra too at the moment, and has a part-time job with us.”
With an experienced team of staff working hard at the store, Azhar is convinced that it will prove successful given the high footfall in the area. Haroon and himself had put careful consideration into choosing a new site, and looked at a number of different locations including at the Dublin Business School and on the North Strand. They realised the Ormond Quay site was ideal because it was surrounded by high numbers of residential customers yet “there was no c-store or Spar on one side for a 15 minutes walk and there’s no Spar on the other side for a 10 minutes walk, so we liked this location instantly. We have been working on it for the last 16 months, and at last we are up and running.” Azhar adds that there are nearly 200 houses and apartments in the locality, “so if we work on attracting those people we can get a good deal of business from them.” For this reason, while the deli and impulse ranges including confectionery, crisps and soft drinks, are currently the strongest performing categories, the store also intends to place a prominent focus on its grocery range.
The deli offers a varied range of lunchtime options and wallet-friendly offers such as a breakfast roll with tea or coffee for only E5
Due to the store being open for less than a full week at the time of ShelfLife’s interview, more work still needs to be done on letting this high number of potential customers know that the store is there however. “It’s going to take some time to let people know, but everyday more faces are coming in, especially solicitors and barristers from the Four Courts,” says Azhar. “They are coming in and they are delighted. The only problem is our lack of advertisement, but we started distributing flyers from yesterday, so we’re going to work on that for a week and hopefully we’ll be alright within 10 days.”
While such teething problems are to be expected during the opening phase of any new store, a more unique problem beset Azhar and Haroon during their first week of trading; namely, record levels of rainfall. In fact last month’s temporary torrential downpours were concentrated in a six-hour spell during the afternoon of Monday 24 October between 2pm and 8pm, when 65.7mm of rain fell. This record is a once in every 80 years event, according to Met Éireann. Refusing to let the downpour get them down however, Azhar responds pragmatically: “That’s a national thing, I don’t think anybody can complain.” He concedes he did panic when the shop was unusually quiet after the heavy rainfall continued into Tuesday. However he asked Eddie Hayes for advice, and was reassured that this was “very normal” for a new store and that they simply had to “be patient.”
With a high level of daily footfall, the impulse categories have performed strongly at the new Costcutter on Ormond Quay
The Barry Group’s Damien Johnston adds that he also believes the store has clear potential to become a regular haunt for its many passer-bys. “What you’ve got here is almost two shops in one,” he explains. “During the day we’re going to hone in on the deli and hot food trade, because of the high amount of employees at the Four Courts and at the county offices across the road. This is an ideal location. We just have to get the advertising done on the outside of it [with permanent signage]. Then at night, we’re going to be pushing for the evening trade, including around the Smithfield area, which has many residential customers.”
People who have tried the store already are likely to become repeat customers moreover, as the retailers have received positive feedback on its value perception and promotional offers available. Azhar notes: “A lady came in from Smithfield yesterday who was just passing by. She said, oh my god, you guys are quite cheap.” She compared the Costcutter to another shop in the area that was considerably more expensive and subsequently said: “It’s nice to see you guys are here.”
Business partners and cousins, Azhar Mahmood and Haroon Nawab are enjoying the challenges involved in opening their first store together
Customers can expect to see even more improvements at the store. Azhar and Haroon have plans to expand their off-licence section in the future. There is a possibility that they may be able to acquire the adjacent post office, and convert this into a full off-licence. “Our future plan is hopefully to achieve that within one year’s time,” says Azhar. His overall goal, he adds is to establish his new store “for the long term. We have a 30 years lease so hopefully we’ll built the store up step by step.” This is an approach which is certainly working well for the bright and modern new Costcutter so far.