Delivering more in Lismore
By trebling the size of their busy forecourt and Mace convenience store in Lismore, Co. Waterford, in order to include an expanded deli and stylish new seating area alongside their award-winning ice cream parlour, retailers Michael and Joan Houlihan are managing to impress both their loyal local customers and heavy passing trade alike
26 July 2016 | 0
Ballyrafter Service Station,
Owners: Michael and Joan Houlihan
Staff: 30; 12 full-time and 18 part-time
Size: Approx. 1,900 sq ft
It’s no exaggeration to describe the scenic background that can be viewed from the new seating area in Mace Lismore as majestic. Lismore Castle is almost perfectly framed, with a glimpse of St Carthage’s Cathedral in the corner. At the time of our interview, just two weeks after a new revamp was officially launched, the picture emerging from the store’s sales growth is similarly pleasing to a trained retailer’s eye.
In fact, since the store’s official opening on 6 May, owner Michael Houlihan says deli sales have doubled. And with “no real forecourt for 15 miles,” the site has traditionally always benefited from strong fuel sales – selling more than 60,000 litres a week. Houlihan notes the store’s partnership with Top Oil has proved useful in this regard: “It’s a very good brand and people like a brand; they feel safe that fuel hasn’t been laundered,” he says.
Undoubtedly, such results are due in part to the forecourt and convenience store’s excellent location. “The local town is very good to us but we have a serious passing trade as well,” says Houlihan. “We’re on the main Rosslare-Killarney Road and we’re leading to Cork and as you can see when you look out, it’s all the time constant traffic passing.” As a superbly presented heritage town, Houlihan says tourism is “taken seriously” by everyone in the local area, and as such, he was delighted to have the new seating area completed in time for the buzzing summer season.
Ice cream dream
Naturally, ice cream plays a key part in keeping both the locals and tourists happy – and fortunately, this is an area Mace Lismore excels in. In fact, Houlihan admits to being something of a perfectionist when it comes to serving up the perfect cone. “I’m a perfectionist with the ice cream,” he says. “I clean the ice cream machine myself, nobody else is let near it!” Dairyglen supplies the store’s ice cream and the Smooch concept is installed which is “a huge part” of the business. In fact, Houlihan notes: “Last Sunday we had queues out the door, at least 40 – 50 all the time waiting for the Smooch. We take pride in it.”
Explaining more about how he ensures the store maintains its reputation for excellent ice cream, Houlihan says: “Ice cream machines are funny things and you need to take them completely apart [during cleaning]; if they’re not put back together right and everything cleaned, you won’t get the proper taste off the ice cream.” The proof would appear to be literally in the (ice cream) pudding in this regard, as his ice cream offering is award-winning. “We have the name for it and we can’t be doing it too wrong because the local radio station, WLR fm ran a competition in the whole of county Waterford to see who had the best 99 and we won it.”
Indeed, having a reputation for quality locally is a factor the Houlihans have steadily concentrated on since first opening the store eight years ago. Michael Houlihan explains that while he was previously a motor home dealer and his wife Joan was a nurse, he says nevertheless that when it came to surviving in the retail game: “We weren’t long in learning! This place came up for sale and the downturn was coming at the time and we decided we had to do something that people are looking for every day. We went into the retail business and haven’t looked back.” Michael Houlihan says his wife Joan “plays a very important role in the business”, being in charge of aspects such as the roster and taking care of paperwork, while his daughters are also involved in the family business.
Naturally, the Houlihans examined the different symbol group partnerships on offer before deciding to align with the Mace brand. They were impressed with Mace’s “overall package. From what we had seen going around the country, looking at other shops, we liked their image and we went with them,” Houlihan says simply. Indeed, the Houlihans continue to put in the effort when it comes to checking out the competition and sussing out what today’s customer expects. “You name it, we’ve been all over the south of Ireland,” checking out stores, Houlihan says. “And if we’re ever on holidays, we always visit any shop that we’d be passing and we’ve picked up ideas from every shop.” Indeed, keeping things fresh is important for this retailer. “Definitely, you have to keep putting new things in your store to keep the people interested and keep them coming; people like change,” he says.
Speaking of change, while the duo now run a tight ship together with Mace, Houlihan says the site was “more or less a derelict petrol station” when they purchased it eight years ago. The husband and wife team subsequently opened a c-store and petrol station “a third of the size of what it is now”. Houlihan says that the biggest difficulty with the renovation was securing planning permission for the job, which took about two years to obtain. However once they got the green light, “there was no stopping us; we drove on and did it. We got planning permission in the first week of February and we had started by the second week of February. We had the builder lined up and ready to go.” In fact, the entire job, which involved taking space from an old house next door to the shop, was turned around in just 11 weeks. “We never stopped,” says Houlihan. “We traded right through from start to finish and completed the job section by section. There were some hairy days but we got there!”
The effort has definitely paid off, judging by customers’ reactions. “People are just delighted,” says Houlihan. “They love it, they love the space, the colour, they love the extra parking. Everybody is excited; we’ve made our deli way bigger and we’ve done a beautiful cold counter and as you can see it’s rocking.” In fact, he adds: “Our deli would be around 30% of our business so it’s a big part of our operation and it’s busy all day long from when we open in the morning until the evening. We make up our own sandwiches and salad plates and it never stops all day long.”
Demand for deli
In fact, at the time of our interview, such was the demand for the deli, that Houlihan was actually hiring a new chef, due to start the following week, in order to prepare freshly-made take-home dinners on site every day, as well as preparing healthy options and pre-packed sandwiches. Another recent hire which has proved a wise move is that of the store’s deli manager, Bernie. “She only joined us in the last two weeks and she has made a complete difference to the deli,” says Houlihan. “Her display is fabulous; as you know, people eat with their eyes and it has made such a difference.” Overall, there are normally three staff members working behind the deli, and the store can easily cater for those looking for hot food later in the evenings with a simple yet effective solution: “We have burgers that just have to go into the Merry Chef so at any stage people can get hot food,” Houlihan says.
What’s more, while the store has plenty of eagerly-received healthy choices, which are all showcased as part of Mace’s Right Options programme, Houlihan finds that traditional favourites such as the breakfast and chicken rolls remain the “biggest sellers in the deli” and account for 75% of deli growth, with builders still backing the famous breakfast roll.
Another area which is a major focus in-store, accounting for around 15% of the overall business, is the in-house coffee machines. Once you find a winner within this department, Houlihan believes it’s important to stick with the brand your customers know and love. “We started with Bewley’s and our customers really like it,” he says. “There was a lot of companies trying to come in to install their coffee but we were afraid to change because we asked our customers and they were anxious that we’d stay with Bewley’s. We would have people that would come in four times a day for coffee so we didn’t want to lose that market. We put in two new Bewley’s machines and as you can see, the two of them are very busy all day.”
Local support is also essential in Houlihan’s view. “I support everything in the community,” he says. “And not alone in Lismore; in the surrounding areas there’s five or six small towns and villages and they all support us and we support them.” In fact, he says that even the store’s builders are local and the shop has a number of local suppliers, including Harrington’s Bakery in Youghal, which delivers to the shop four times a week and has proven a real hit. Another department in the store which more than pulls its weight is the wine section, which the retailer says has increased four-fold in size since the business first opened.
A happy future
Looking towards the future, Houlihan says the store would be keen to expand its wine licence into a full off-licence, as well as installing a carwash and expanding its car parking facilities from the 23 spaces currently available. At the moment, opening more stores is not on the cards for Houlihan although he doesn’t rule this option out entirely, noting, “maybe down the road with one of my daughters but at the moment, we’re happy”.
Indeed, it’s not difficult to see why the Houlihans would be happy with the store’s current performance. As ShelfLife observes, the shop enjoys a steady stream of footfall, including customers coming in specifically looking for the Mace offers seen advertised on television, because they’re actively “watching what’s going on,” according to Houlihan. As well as the satisfaction of knowing they are fulfilling customers’ expectations of value-for-money and friendly service, the store’s dedicated team of staff were also recently buoyed by the strong local support shown for them at their official opening, where “an unbelievable amount of people” turned out. All-in-all therefore, it appears this is one Mace proving more than in keeping with the brand tagline: ‘Going the extra smile’.