Dynamic in Donegal

Gavin O'Leary, marketing and circulation manager, Irish Daily Star; Brian O'Casey, commercial director, Cuisine de France and Nigel Scully, head of sales, National Lottery, present the Supreme Award for the National Convenience Store of the Year 2012 to Annette and Eddie Tobin and Ruari Kelly of Tobin's Topaz/Spar, Port Road, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, at the ShelfLife National C-Store Awards 2012
Gavin O'Leary, marketing and circulation manager, Irish Daily Star; Brian O'Casey, commercial director, Cuisine de France and Nigel Scully, head of sales, National Lottery, present the Supreme Award for the National Convenience Store of the Year 2012 to Annette and Eddie Tobin and Ruari Kelly of Tobin's Topaz/Spar, Port Road, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, at the ShelfLife National C-Store Awards 2012

Through increasing deli sales by 11% over the past year, and maintaining first rate standards and customer service, Tobin's Topaz/Spar in Letterkenny has proved a worthy recipient of the National C-Store of The Year 2012 Award



16 January 2013

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Tobin’s Topaz/Spar,
Port Road,
Co. Donegal
Owner: Eddie Tobin
Staff: 32; 18 full-time, 14 part-time

"Considering we’re in recessionary times, 2012 has been our best year yet." Retailer Eddie Tobin’s upbeat summary of the past 12 months is undoubtedly one that many of his colleagues within the industry would be only too delighted to share. While Tobin says overall turnover at his Topaz/Spar service station has remained "fairly static," rising by 2% since 2011, several areas of the store have recorded impressive double-figure growth. The deli’s turnover has increased by 11% on the previous year and following the repositioning of the coffee bar and installation of the Tim Horton’s concept, coffee sales are up by a phenomenal 49%. 

Adding to this roll-call of good news, the retailer says fuel sales have risen by 9% over the past year. "We’ve been trading in fuels since 1980, so this has matched our best year’s fuel sales in terms of litres sold, so we feel we’re doing something right." That being said, he has noticed that consumers are clearly cutting back on their discretionary spend, particularly within traditional hero impulse categories such as confectionery and soft drinks. 

Tobin's Topaz/Spar in Letterkenny is thriving, despite its high level of local competition

Tobin’s Topaz/Spar in Letterkenny is thriving, despite its high level of local competition

A good Sparring partner

Given that times are increasingly tough for retailers whose customers are pulling the purse-strings ever tighter, we were eager to hear how the Tobin’s store had managed to buck the trend and achieve significant growth within several categories. An obvious change that occurred at the start of 2012 was that the store became affiliated to a new symbol group. We wanted to know if the new partnership with Spar had exerted a significant impact on the shop’s performance. 

"Spar has certainly helped move the store on to another level," answers Tobin. A major aspect of this was the group’s knowledge on category management; an area of the business that the retailer was keen to concentrate on. 

"They have excellent category management plans and up to date information," he says. "That is key to developing your store; everything evolves continuously so you can’t stand still. Spar was not only able to provide that information, but they engaged with us and helped to put it in place." A planogram was subsequently agreed on that would optimise every square foot of the available shop floor. Another factor which affected Tobin’s decision making process was that he already had a good working relationship with the manager and staff of the nearby Value Centre, which likewise belongs to the BWG Group.

A delicious deli 

Reflecting on his deli department, the retailer attributes its robust growth to his staff’s "consistency, standards and customer service. Before where customers might have come once a week, now we’re starting to see them three or four times a week." The deli has also gained a strong reputation for quality through sourcing fresh ingredients from local suppliers. "Our deli offer would be quite different from a lot of forecourt delis in that we cook everything from scratch; we buy in a lot of locally sourced beef, we buy sausages from the local butcher, there’s no frozen meat products at all, it’s all bought fresh," says Tobin. The store also developed a bakery offering where products such as scones and brown bread are likewise made from scratch, which proved "a major growth area in 2012". 

Another area where Tobin believes Spar excels is in the strength of its value perception. "We’re certainly doing more promotions," he says. "The group is very good at providing point of sale, advertising and they’ve a lot of national publicity on promotions and value lines. Obviously when you’re involved under the Spar umbrella you can then avail of all those offers so that has helped us progress, the offers and more so, effectively portraying those offers to the consumer."

Staff play a crucial role

While the store owner therefore feels the business has benefitted from its alliance with Spar, one aspect where the shop has always scored extremely highly is in the calibre of its staff and the level of customer service provided. He explains that Tobin’s has benefitted from having "very low staff turnover; 22 of them are here five years or more which is important. We invest in staff training and we believe in staff retention, it’s the nature of the business. A lot of our staff know our customers on a first name basis. Even though we’re on a main artery road out of Letterkenny, 80% or 90% of our business is repeat business from people coming back." 

In his view, awards such as the C-Stores and the EIQA scheme, where Tobin’s received the EIQA National Award for Hygiene & Food Safety in Forecourts in both 2011 and 2012, act as important motivational tools for staff. "The awards provide recognition for staff, they validate the rational of why we do what we do, why we’re so particular about customer service, why standards are so important.

Constant innovation

Continually investing in the store is another vital ingredient in maintaining a successful business, according to Tobin. Indeed, innovation has always proved a hallmark of the business which was first opened on a greenfield site in 1980 by Eddie’s father, Pat Tobin, who passed away in 1999. At that time, the site was operated solely as a petrol station. Then in 1994, a 600 sq ft shop was opened which was developed several times.

Originally the Tobins traded as an independent retailer before partnering with Gala in 2004. The next major change came in 2008, when the larger store – that the business still operates from today – was built, including a deli and seating area for the first time, which now accounts for around a third of overall sales. The Tobins also added an off-licence department in 2011, which generates approximately 10% of the shop’s turnover. 

The store's coffee sales increased by 49% in 2012

The store’s coffee sales increased by 49% in 2012

Not a level playing field

While Eddie Tobin has persistently strived to drive all aspects of the business forwards, one area which he has found particularly challenging in recent years is the car wash sector. "My car wash is down 70% since 2007 which is massive and an element of it is the recession but it’s not just that," he explains. "There’s five car washes operating in Letterkenny more or less on the side of the road without planning permission. They’re not subject to water rates, there’s car wash effluence going into the public sewer, but there seems to be no push on the planning authorities to do anything about it."

He feels this is unfair on the law-abiding operators who do comply with all the relevant regulations. "I have no issue with competition so long as it’s a level playing field for all and that’s certainly not the case in the car-washing business. I’ve put a massive investment into car washing, there’s €250,000 of equipment alone, never mind what they’re housed in."

Making a very strong case for why the problem needs to be addressed, he adds: "The rates here are €25,000 a year. It’s very hard to be paying rates when the council aren’t effectively applying the planning laws against competition which is dramatically affecting my business."

Tobin’s thoughts on competition are no mere empty words moreover, as with 12 forecourts operating within a three mile radius of him, this has always been a business reality at the forefront of his mind. 

A prime site

Fortunately, the retailer has a strong location that works in his favour. "They say first on the left leaving the town is the best location and currently we are still first on the left as you leave." Another factor that enables Tobin’s to stand out from its rivals, is that after 32 years of operating in Letterkenny, local consumers know they can trust the Tobin’s name.

Commenting on this high level of customer loyalty, the retailer says: "What we’d attribute that to is that there’s a lot of illegal fuel on the market and Topaz’s clean fuels message has gotten through to customers. Topaz has quality, clean fuels, meaning you get more miles per gallon. They’ve been very good at portraying that message and we also find that lots of people are coming in saying at least when we’re buying off Tobin’s we know what we’re getting." 

At the centre of the community

The group has also been very keen to support their local community over the years and has sponsored a variety of local GAA, rugby and soccer sports teams. While there is a lot of money involved in such sponsorships, Tobin believes, "it’s important to try and be involved in the community and give something back".

Starting into a new year afresh in January, the store owner says his plan for the coming year is to "consolidate what we have. If we could trade as well in 2013 as we have in 2012 we would be happy. We’re continuously looking to tweak our offering." In fact at the time of our interview on 2 January, an electric car charging point was about to be installed on-site the following week, making Tobin’s the first forecourt in Letterkenny to offer this facility. "We’re looking at any other opportunity or area where we can improve," he adds. "Sometimes it won’t be a big area but all the small areas add up, we’ll start re-evaluating the shop again and see where do we need to improve – there’s always room for improvement." Wise words and undoubtedly it is this hard-working ethos which has seen Tobin’s Topaz/Spar receive the prestigious title of National C-Store of the Year.

The judge’s verdict

Head judge and independent retail expert Joe Commerford shares his opinion on the store
A fine example of the best in Irish family run convenience retailing managed to a very high standard every day, with a very good range of product suited to the local very competitive market and thriving with the clever use of two very strong national brands, Topaz and Spar.



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