Brothers Colin and Eugene Fee have delivered a shop in Blackrock, Co. Louth that really packs a punch in terms of squeezing in as many exciting new ideas as possible into the available space. Gillian Hamill caught up with Colin Fee and retail operations advisor Barry Flynn, to learn more about how Mace intends to roll out Blackrock’s new look across its portfolio in the coming years
12 September 2014
Mace Blackrock, Co. Louth
Owners: Colin and Eugene Fee
Staff: Approx. 5-6 full-time and 8-9 part-time staff
Size: 2,200 sq ft
“The neighbourhood store of the future” is how BWG Foods retail operations advisor Barry Flynn describes the newly opened Mace in Blackrock, Co. Louth. The store, which first opened its doors on 13 August, has a number of unique features which set it apart from its competitors. “The main thing is it’s the first of Mace’s new image,” owner Colin Fee explains. Naturally deciding on a look that will be rolled across a symbol brand’s stores involves a great deal of consideration and “a bit of chopping and changing”, but both the retailer and Barry Flynn are clearly very pleased with the finished result.
Stylish new look
Flynn explains that the main changes involve removing some of the orange previously used in the Mace branding and adding more timber finishes in-store such as timber caps round the tops of shelving, which he says was Fee’s idea. “The timber finish just adds a bit of style and panache. It’s trendy looking, it’s modern,” says Flynn. The Blackrock store also includes Mace’s new look deli which Fee notes has “got off to a great start; we’re really pleased with the deli sales”.
Indeed, it’s quickly evident that Colin Fee and his brother Eugene, with whom he owns a further two stores in Dundalk, are not retailers who are short of an idea or three! Their design flair is definitely on display in the Blackrock store where they’ve installed a number of their own unique concepts. The first of these is a bakery concept called Cinnamon Bakery, for which they have installed a new fixture and produce a range themselves from scratch in their own kitchen, using Puratos as their supplier.
Another unique concept created for the Blackrock store is its ice cream and milkshakes bar. Fee explains: “We were looking at all the ice cream concepts but we decided we’d go with our own which is the Blueberry concept. We’ve got scoop ice cream and traditional whipped ice cream and we also do sweet shakes with whichever chocolate bar you want; we churn up the bar and add them and all three are going very well. Well, it’s a seaside resort so on the good days, you’re going to sell ice cream!” In fact, the store even has a hatch directly onto the street, so those gasping for a refreshing ice cream or shake to cool themselves down don’t even have to venture into the store to get their fix!
The innovation doesn’t end there however. Although the store which was previously a Londis, had always contained a butchers counter in-store, the Fees decided to partner with two local suppliers. “One was Tony Kieran who is a well-known butchers in Dundalk and [his team] came in with us on a concession basis so they are running the meat counter and the fish counter, which is a bit unique in a store of this size. The other partner we have is Country Fresh who would be a big fruit and veg supplier in Dundalk and we took them in as well, purely from the point of view that they’re two well-known local brands and we just felt that to compete we needed that extra bit of focus.”
“The mix that’s there at the moment is definitely the neighbourhood shop of the future,” Flynn adds. “The grocery end of it, it’s a very competitive business out there; you’re getting your margin through the likes of ice cream. It’s definitely the way to go; fresh.” In Fee’s view, local suppliers and retailers can also make a powerful team by partnering up. “In certain areas you do need a bit of local, I suppose you could call it safety in numbers. You need to have brands that local people can recognise and feel confident in.”
What’s more, they say everything happens for a reason and although it took longer to open the store than originally anticipated, the extra time this allowed for planning, has helped the store to ensure it offers the right mix of products. Fee explains: “We made the decision to buy the store about 12 months ago and through one thing and another, organising the legals, it took a while to open. We were involved in a lot of projects and that delayed us as well but we got the store opened. In terms of planograms it’s actually worked very well when I look at the mix downstairs. We’re going to watch it very, very closely. Some people might say it’s a disadvantage that we sat on the store for such a long time but with a lot of planning, 12 months, we were able to tweak the offering as we went along because we found it’s very important that we’re selling the right products; We’ve got limited shelf space. We opened on 13 August and it was a bit of a baptism of fire as we had a festival on the first weekend. On 15 August, it’s a farmers’ day off and they all come into the village for their day off on a Friday so we had a very, very busy opening weekend.”
Another factor that has driven footfall into the store is its new ATM. “A point of note was that there was no ATM in the village so we approached two banks and both banks were very keen but we have two AIB ATMs already; one we own ourselves in Greenacres and one that’s leased out from the bank, so we went with AIB and they came in with a new machine which has been very well received.” As he sagely highlights: “It’s a big village and it was missed.” At the time of our interview, a new off-licence was also set to come on board in the next few weeks, with a space already allocated for it in one corner of the store, where wine sales were already performing strongly.
A community focus has always been important for both Colin and Eugene as locals from the area. “We’ve always supported the local football teams and we’ve worked with Rock Celtic FC and we sponsored a couple of events they were doing with the community centre recently. We’re always sponsoring the Tidy Towns, even before we opened the shop here, because we’re from the village ourselves.”
Naturally the news that two locals would be opening a new store created a bit of a stir in Blackrock. “The family would be well-known because of our business interests in the town of Dundalk. As we’re from the village, when word went out that we had bought the store, a lot of people were asking us when are you opening, so that was a bit of a thrill. There was a lot of talk so when we did eventually get it open, it was very well received.”
Strong retailing background
Explaining more about the duo’s background in retail Fee explains that his dad was a builder and his mother worked in retail “in the rag trade” and to this day, his sisters still have a clothes store in Dundalk. He adds: “My dad owned the service station in Castletown [on the outskirts of Dundalk]; he built it in 1958 and then leased it out and it came back to us in the 80s so he refurbished it and myself and Eugene bought it from him in 1981. We switched over to Maxol in 1992. It was just a kerbside site with tyres and a carwash, there was no shop so we demolished it and went with Mace in 1996, opening a 1,800 sq ft store. We’ve always been with Mace rather than anybody else. It was a busy shop and it went very well for us and then we opened the standalone Greenacres 2,200 sq ft site in July 2002 so they’ve been trading fairly well for us.”
Having two stores already nearby has also proved beneficial in terms of allowing the Fees to train in their new staff in advance. “At the moment we’re sharing staff with the other sites,” the retailer explains. “We’ve been ramping up staff numbers for the last couple of months so we moved some of the new staff to here so that we get a good mix and a good level of experience.”
The recession has also delivered a silver lining in terms of the quality of applicants available, according to Fee. “We were pleasantly surprised this time around; we were very, very surprised with the calibre of applicants. It was noticeably different than before…Now we’re looking for college and relevant experience and we’ve brought a few people in. We’ve brought about three people on and they’re superb.”
When asked what’s next, Fee replies “a rest!” Few in the retailing world will be surprised to hear that this was a mere jest however. Instead, an upgrade for their Castletown Road store is actually next on the agenda, starting in September/October – once the “back to school rush is over”.
Overall, the brothers are extremely pleased with their new store offering. Fee confirms: “This is definitely the shop model which we will be using going forwards, there’s no question about it, it just enhances profitability to the store because it’s got those different elements there.” Flynn is also positive that the investment put into the store will reap dividends. “There was a lot of investment. Absolutely, on both sides I think it’s fair to say, so yes, hopefully we’ll be sitting here in two or three years with most of our stores re-branded.”