Connecting with customers at Sligo Junction
With a shiny new appearance, Mace Sligo Junction is certainly stylish, but not at the expense of substance. Boosting a carvery, deli, salad bar and its own fast food brand alongside a combined seating area which can accommodate 100 customers, Gillian Hamill caught up with retailer Dermot Fallon to hear how the recent €3 million investment in the site is reaping dividends
17 December 2015 | 0
Mace Sligo Junction,
N4 and N17 Junction,
Owner: Dermot Fallon
Manager: Trevor Kennedy
Size: 5,000 sq ft
Staff: 40; 15 full-time and 25 part-time
With their own drive-thru fast food brand pithily named Hot Rods, the team at Mace Sligo Junction are confident they can continue to reel in the crowds. In fact, out of 18,000 vehicles passing the premises every day, the store attracts 2,500 of these customers. Including fuel, the average spend according to owner Dermot Fallon, is “just shy of €20”. What’s more, the site’s foodservice offering is a major attraction, accounting for around 40% of the overall business.
It’s not difficult to see how the store is managing to achieve these sorts of numbers. Earlier this year, approximately €3 million was spent on developing the 5,000 sq ft site, with construction beginning in February and continuing up until the end of June. Naturally, a renovation of this nature involved a mammoth amount of advance preparation and planning. As Fallon notes: “There were a lot of behind the scenes factors that had to be carefully planned so we could keep trading throughout and provide the least disruption for customers because it’s all very well having a big development, but you have to look after your customers.” In fact, such was the team’s determination to provide as little disruption to trade as possible, that Fallon points out: “We even temporarily moved the shop from one side of the building to the other while trading.” The store refit was carried out by Storefit, with refrigeration, air conditioning and kitchen equipment sourced from Apex Controls and other equipment such as the fryers and ice cream machine sourced from Martin Food Equipment, with tills from CBE.
Focus on fresh
Thankfully, the end results have delighted both management and customers. “It’s very well laid out, there’s a nice flow to it,” says Fallon. “The shelves are all low-level so that when you walk in you can see right across the shop. All the different categories are clearly identifiable as well and we’ve put a strong emphasis on fresh.” Indeed, this focus on fresh is evident from the moment a shopper first steps inside the store, with a spider fridge showcasing fresh meats at the entrance, and an impressive fruit and veg display nearby. A grab-and-go fridge also occupies a prominent position, stocked up with healthy options galore including fresh sandwiches, salads, and ready-prepared Mace meals. Mace’s Deli Café brand likewise places a strong focus on healthy options.
Of course, the convenience store hero categories are also well catered for, with a coffee dock housing two Bewley’s machines. A confectionery queuing system has been introduced at the tills, a move which has “proved very successful” and “helped boost confectionery sales by over 50%”. In fact, according to Fallon, “all categories have seen a significant increase” and customers have been full of praise for the store layout. “We’ve got a lot of compliments from customers on the ease and the convenience for them of how to get around the shop and find the products that they want.” Another new addition to the store is the ATM – cleverly located at the back of the premises, helping to encourage more impulse purchases as people walk through the store to reach it. This has “definitely proved a big footfall driver” and “brought in extra custom,” according to Fallon. Likewise, an extremely important factor for any forecourt c-store that hopes to attract passing trade is the quality and standards of its toilet facilities, and Mace Sligo Junction has invested in ensuring it offers the best. This includes a high quality disabled toilet facility which Fallon says has met with “a good reaction because it’s something that wasn’t really available anywhere else in the area”. A lobby with a customer notice board at the entrance further enhances the community feel of the Mace.
Developing a fast food brand
Ably managed by Trevor Kennedy, who has more than 20 years of retail management under his belt since 1993, the store successfully manages to combine all the above elements as well as a daily carvery, in-store bakery and strong off-licence section. This accomplishment is no doubt aided by the fact Kennedy has worked within management in a number of different retail environments including in forecourts, Dunnes, SuperValu and Spar and so clearly knows the value of adaptability. Obviously a quality that flourishes across the group as a whole, given it was courageous enough to establish its own fast food brand from scratch. So how exactly does one go about achieving such a seemingly onerous task?
Firstly, getting the right people with the right experience on board, was key according to Fallon. The majority of the store’s new staff came from specific foodservice backgrounds; a necessary consideration as the store also provides a carvery offering. Trained baristas were also hired and foodservice operators from “some of the more well-known brands,” who had “extensive experience” in this area. While plunging into a new sector like this is not for the faint-hearted, it appears to have paid off. “The fast food business was very new to us but we’re very happy with how Hot Rods has gone so far,” says Fallon. “There’s been a very positive reaction to it; we have a Facebook page for Hot Rods Collooney with approximately 2,500 likes on it and that is translating into business inside the door. I even took some enquiries today about birthday parties; we’re branching out to that side of it as well.” Hot Rods is certainly building a reputation locally for providing quality and this is helping it to stand out within the market. “The established fast food operators are more conscious of our presence in that industry now and they would be reacting at a local level to some of the products that we would have where the quality or the spec might be more original,” says Fallon. For example, “we would be well known now for having a larger burger than maybe you’d have in some of the international brands,” he adds.
Given the fast cut-and-thrust pace of forecourt retailing where people largely want to get in and out in minutes, we were interested to hear if service was an issue? However according to Fallon: “We’ve got a lot of compliments on that; our service is prompt. All you can do is put as many procedures in place as possible; have things prepared and ready to go, make sure your tills are in good order. If it’s in the shop, maybe help somebody bring their goods out to the car. With all these things, it’s a matter of working on customer care on an ongoing basis.” All in all, the future appears to be bright for Hot Rods and Fallon says expanding the brand to other sites is certainly “a possibility” but “we want to get this exactly right first”.
This philosophy of striving to always improve is certainly not new to Dermot Fallon, with the Sligo Junction store first opening as a 1,400 sq ft greenfields site back in 2000. A second generation retailer, his business also holds the licence for the Gulf Oil brand in Ireland, which it sub-franchises to other retailers, as well as using on its own sites. The advantage of the Gulf brand, according to Fallon, is that “it’s independent and when you’re buying fuel, you can buy on the spot and you get the best price and value from the best suppliers out there whereas when you’re tied in to some of the other brands, you have to buy from a certain source.” He also has plenty of praise for the BWG Group in terms of the high level of support offered, including advice on category optimisation. “The Mace brand is a very vibrant brand and very popular,” Fallon adds.
Attracting repeat custom
With 40 staff on-site, the store is backed by a strong team. In fact, 16 staff came from the original store opened back in 2000, while many have been with Mace Sligo Junction for 10 years or more. “We have a strong core of experienced staff that did a good job for us in the old shop,” says Fallon. “They would know the regular customers, know the local area well and would have basically helped the new staff to settle in.” This friendly welcome helps secure repeat custom, not just from the locals but from passing trade, which includes many drivers who would call into the store every few days as they journey between Dublin and Donegal.
As well as the popular Sligo Junction store, the group owns a shop in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo which is around 1,800 sq ft in size. Explaining more about the breakdown of sales in the Ballinrobe store, Fallon notes: “It would have a good proportion of foodservice, although it wouldn’t be on the scale of Collooney but it’s trading very well, with a strong deli trade and tea and coffee trade. It has a nice little mix, there would be a certain element of a local neighbourhood shop to it as well. Again we’ll be constantly looking at how we can improve it and how we can develop it over the coming months and years.”
This is largely the same plan of attack for the Sligo Junction store. “We’re all the time trying to develop the business,” says Fallon. “We’re going to try to develop the Hot Rods business even further. We’re constantly reviewing the menu offering and we’ll try and promote the drive-through further. Throughout 2016, we’ve started establishing links with coach operators, we’re engaging in a lot of local sponsorships as well where we’re developing partnerships with local organisations which should help things because it develops goodwill within the community.” So far, the business has supported the local hospice, schools and sporting organisations such as St Michael’s GAA. With such a high degree of festive spirit abounding, the store looks set to enjoy an extremely Merry Christmas and prosperous 2016.