Driving a strong business
Hillside Stores in Drumbaragh, Kells, Co Meath has had a recent makeover and is now trading under the Mace banner. Fionnuala Carolan visited the store to hear how business is faring
15 April 2015
Drumbaragh, Kells, Co. Meath
Owners: James Curry and Carmel Clarke
Size: 3,500 sq ft
Drumbaragh is a small village/townland on the outskirts of Kells, Co Meath. Carmel Clarke and James Curry, a brother and sister-in-law duo, are the owners of this forecourt convenience store and have been in business for 24 years. Carmel remembers the original 500 sq ft shop that was in situ on this forecourt site when they bought the place 24 years ago.
“The shop was only a sitting room of a small bungalow so it was really small. We took it over and we extended it as much as we could with the intention of getting planning permission at some stage for a complete rebuild. We put in three planning applications but it didn’t get accepted because they said the road was too busy. Eventually after ten years we got the application approved. And then the council put up street lighting and made it into a sort of village,” she explained.
The shop has changed many times over the years but since the recent renovation business has really been booming.
James says: “For such a small village we get a huge amount of business. It’s mostly passing trade. There would only be around 100 people living in Drumbaragh but a lot of children going to the local school come from Kells and the surrounding countryside. There’s over a hundred kids so you get a lot of trade from the parents when they are dropping them off. The kids themselves also come in for their lunches and after-school treats.”
They have seen business increase steadily in recent months, due to both the investment in the rebranding of the store coupled with the end of the recession.
According to James: “People are a bit more confident about spending. Before they were scrapping, really scrapping by,” he says.
Carmel agrees. She says that even during the 1980s things didn’t get as bad as they did during this recession. “I was in business in the 80s but it was nothing like this. The banks were serious this time about putting pressure on people. It’s great to see things picking up again.”
While it may seem like you are in the depths of the countryside, the newly built M3 motorway is only a stone’s throw from the shop. The forecourt has ten pumps and a car wash and is hugely busy as a result of the proximity to one of the busiest roads in the country.
“The motorway is just 200 yards down the road,” explains James. “We get about 150/200 people a day from that. At 5.45am there are people waiting outside to get their coffee. We have signs on the motorway advertising that people can pay their M50 toll or prepay from here so a lot of people come in to do that.”
The position of the motorway was hugely important to the future of this business and has encouraged them to make the recent investment. However it wasn’t always guaranteed that it would work out so well.
“There were a couple of routes for that motorway to go,” explains James. “We had applied for planning permission to extend a number of years ago and we had it half way built when we got called to a meeting to say the motorway was going to take a different route. So we had to decide whether we were going to go ahead with our plans or not. We went ahead and it paid off as in the end they decided to use this route.”
As the motorway was being built they suffered a fortunate consequence in that their lunchtime trade exploded. “We had a fantastic lunchtime trade when the building was underway. We would have 70 fellas in for their lunch every day.”
The builders have now been replaced with the commuters so they have seen a further increase rather than a decrease in business since the road has been completed.
Reaction to new look
James says that they have achieved the ‘wow’ factor with the new Mace fit out and the deli is one area that really stands out. “The deli and the whole colour scheme has made such a difference. I suppose the areas that have improved most since the changeover to Mace would be the deli, the off-licence and the home baking.”
Sales of home baked products have gone through the roof in recent times. All the produce is par-baked in-store with the ingredients coming from Complete Cuisine. They make bread, scones, danishes and various types of donuts. “A lot of it is impulse purchases. And we sell them in a multi-pack as well,” explains Carmel. “We place a range of baked goods beside the coffee station so that encourages the impulse buys. We changed to Bewley’s coffee recently and we’re very happy with that.”
The off-licence is another strong area of the business, says James.
“We have a full off-licence and you have to have that these days. People’s habits have changed now. People drink at home. With the rugby season underway, people were coming in to stock up for the weekend.”
Choosing the Mace brand
The changeover to Mace happened on the 16 August last. James says that it surprisingly didn’t affect trade. “It was a big disruption in the shop because we had to tile the whole floor so everything in the shop had to be moved. We didn’t have to close; we just closed sections and worked around it. When you go to do a bit of work on a shop, it seems to get busier. I don’t know if people come in for a look to see what you are doing or if it just seems busier because you are operating in a smaller space. It was coming up to the first week in December by the time things were totally finished. December is our busiest month because we do a big toy trade out there as well.”
Although unusual to see, one half of the shop is dedicated to a toy and hardware store. James explains how this came about: “We started with a few toys in a bedroom in the old shop and a bike or two and it just got bigger and bigger and eventually we started a toy club,” says James. “People pay monthly for their Christmas toys. They start in January and I would be holding stuff until Christmas Eve for them. I have often sat here ringing people when they were in the pub on Christmas Eve and I’m saying ‘I have to go home. Come and collect your toys!’”
This dedication to customer service continues all year around with the shop opening at 6am every morning and not closing until 10pm. Carmel and James both work full-time and they employ 12 more staff including Carmel’s daughter and two sisters. Carmel explains: “We both work full-time. You have to work every day when you are self-employed.”
In the mornings it takes two people in the deli to prepare the hot food and the baked products. Carmel explains the daily routine. “We prepare the hot deli first and that’s done before 8am and then we make the sandwiches, rolls etc. Once that is done we start mixing for the scones and bread.”
Being a local store, customer service is very important and it is not unusual for them to get phone calls at all times of the day and night with specific requests.
“Coming in to the summer, the farmers will be working late into the evening as they are doing up the silage so you’ll get a phone call asking you to make up ten sandwiches and someone will be down to collect them. That’s the kind of thing we do all the time.”
Benefits of being with Mace
Aside from the great spec, the real benefits of being with Mace are the range of products and the special offers they can avail of. The Mace special offers run on a three weekly national promotional cycle but there are also weekly offers available. James says that his customers are always looking for new offers. “The weekly offers are to drive the footfall to your shop and then when they are in, you hope they buy other things and they usually do.”
“Mace has a great range of products and offers,” he says. “The customers often say they only came in for one thing and end up with a basket full.”
Enjoying the game
After nearly 25 years in the world of grocery retailing, you might think that Carmel and James are weary of the daily grind but it would seem not. Both say they enjoy retailing wholeheartedly and wouldn’t do anything else.
“I love retailing,” says James. “It’s different every day. You don’t know who you’re going to meet or who you are going to talk to or what issues you will encounter.” With an attitude like this, it is no wonder that business is so strong at Hillside Stores, Drumbaragh and long may it continue.