Courtney’s Centra takes the gold

Courtney’s Centra in Fairview, Dublin 3, has been open six years
Courtney’s Centra in Fairview, Dublin 3, has been open six years

Lil Courtney’s store in Fairview Dublin was this year’s winner of the Platinum ShelfLife C-Store Award



16 January 2012

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“You can’t be complacent. You have to continue to reinvent yourself. You have to keep fighting”. This is the mantra Lil Courtney lives by these days.

With business plans already in place for the next few years, and promotional spend budgets accounted for, she is leaving nothing to chance.

“Sometimes small shops don’t have a strategy,” explains Courtney, “because they don’t think they need it.

“Musgrave has a strategy for the brand but each town and area has a different customer base and you have to tweak it for yours. I need to disrupt my consumers, that’s what I do,” she says.

While Courtney has always been conscious of offering value because her shop is situated in inner city Dublin and her customers are fiercely aware of price, she has had to double her efforts over the past few years. “In the boom we always felt we worked hard, we were keeping up standards and giving the consumer what they wanted but the difference now is that the consumer wants something different. We had to cut costs and become more productive. Centra as a brand has become very competitive and Musgrave has pumped huge money and serious resources into building that value perception over the past two years and we have built on that too. We back up their campaigns with our own.”

She does not believe in building a business on distress purchasing. “I want my consumer coming back to me three/four times a week. They need to know they can get what they need in my shop. I don’t believe in out of stocks. When you are buying from Musgrave there is no need to be out of stock because it’s just about management.”

Courtney says that she continues to remain a destination because of the strong grocery element of her business. The Fairview shop is 4,500 square foot so she can afford to have a bigger range of products and categories than many other smaller Centra stores.

Marketing drive

Over the past year, Courtney has invested heavily in local marketing campaigns. One of the most recent campaigns was a three day sale where she slashed the prices of a range of branded goods. This was a huge success and she intends to run it again.

One particular campaign she has really reaped benefits from over the past few years is ‘Thurday Madness’. Each Thursday she drops the price of one big brand item like a box of biscuits which would normally retail for €10 and she sells it for €3 or a 12 pack of 7up cans go for €2. “The key elements are that it’s a big brand, it’s less than half price and it’s in the same position in the store every week. The reason we started it was because Thursday used to be the weakest day of the week and now it’s the strongest.”

While some promotions are advertised by word of mouth, she also sends out flyers for new campaigns and she has learned not to advertise too far in advance – a day or two at most or else people forget about it. And she says that the key is not to run out of stock. “There is no point in running out of a big brand on promotion at 12 in the day when your customers are making the effort to travel to your store to get it.”


Courtney and her team carried out a revamp last February to incorporate some extra space and improve areas like the bakery and the deli.

Musgrave organised a trip to Holland, of which she was a part, in order to do some research on bakeries. “Bakery is very big in Holland,” she says. “We learned key things. We now light under all our breads. We used to always build our bakery up at a high level and now we have brought it to the ground. We have created and integrated colour and warmth into the area.” She has also since extended the range and gets her produce from a range of local bakeries.

The other major change in the revamp was creating space throughout the store. After carrying out focus groups she found out that her customers wanted more room to browse.

 “There was a perception that we were just a convenience store and customers couldn’t see the value until they got into the centre of the store. So I cut back space at the front, mostly refridgeration. I brought the refrigerators to the floor and put extra shelving in. I actually gained sales even though I was taking back floor space.”

Losing it

While Courtney makes a good living from her business she warns others that it is very easy to lose everything you own in this business. “Opening a shop is the fastest way to lose money. In the first year of business, that’s when you lose all your money. Running your own business you’re going to make a load of mistakes and they are going to cost you. There are so many ways of losing money and it’s so easy to lose track. I employ a company called FCOS and that was the best decision I ever made. It’s run by an accountant, an ex Musgrave employee, and he saw there was a real gap for retailers to have someone to do all their invoicing but also to do quarterly accounts – detailed ones. After the first quarter, I knew what I was losing. That was key. Still after six years, I come out of a meeting with a list of things I need to change because they compare you with other similar stores and look at every area of the business.”

Past life

Courtney is a retailer at heart and like many started her career out of college as a trainee manager with Dunnes Stores after completing a Commerce degree and then a Masters in Business in UCC. She quickly moved into the buying department and spent 10 years there. “When I left Dunnes I was a senior buyer. I set up chilled convenience foods for the company.”

The one thing she always loved about Dunnes was its ability to adapt quickly. “If Margaret Heffernan decided she needed to change something, then it would be done the next day. In a business like this you have to adapt and react to your consumers. I’m in the same position as every other retailer but we need to be clever in order to survive and you need to keep fighting for your business”.

And she is not shy about professing her great admiration for her old employer. “Margaret Heffernan is an amazing woman, extremely talented and the best retailer I ever met.”

Close knit team

Courtney says that her management team have worked harder than ever over the past few years and she heaps praise upon them. It’s evident that they are a very close team.

“My general manager Barry Faye is seriously talented. He’s passionate and loves this game and it’s so hard to find that. He runs the business like it’s his own. He’s a great strategic partner for me and very strong operationally.

“Carmel O’Connor is the manager of Fairview. She works so hard, physically and mentally, and she has that work ethic that is rare. Her loyalty and ability to work hard is fantastic. Mohammad Sajiad the manager of the East Wall store, generates so much loyalty because of his customer service skills.

“And Rutha Vysniauskyte manages my fresh. She delivers cleanliness and consistency. If you go into our delis they look like they were put in yesterday. She manages two teams of women and she’s a great leader. Everybody respects her.

“And finally my regional manager from Musgrave, Micheal Kennedy, is hugely supportive and a huge part of my team. He really understands retailers and in the current climate that’s so important because this game is getting tougher.”

ShelfLife award

Courtney says her whole team were delighted with the award and it was blatantly obvious how much it meant to them by their reactions on the night. “What better acknowledgement is there than to be told you’re the best store in the country? My staff need to be motivated and it’s not always about money. What better way to be rewarded than to stand up before your peers and be told that you are the best. The ShelfLife award meant a lot to us because we are open six years and if we could win it on year six, we must be doing something right.

“I said to the staff that I really wanted to win this year and I usually don’t put them under that pressure. We’d done the revamp, come through a tough couple of years, fought hard and given the environment, we’re trading very well. I wanted someone to acknowledge my staff for all their hard work. Now someone else is telling them that they are as good as I thought they were. I think anyone who says that these awards don’t matter is not competitive and doesn’t have any passion. You have to compete. I don’t get into competitions if I don’t think I can win.”

After the excitement of the win dies down Courtney says it’s about surviving the next few years. “We’ve got to make it break even because break even is the new profit. Whatever profitability has to go back into the business. You have to eliminate shrinkage and spend on promotions and just keep fighting for your business.”



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