Express route to excellence
Although its recent National Q Mark is a firm indicator of success, one only has to walk through the doors of Tobin’s Topaz/Spar Express and witness the continuous stream of footfall to realise that this is a store not prepared to settle for anything less than excellence. Gillian Hamill caught up with owner Eddie Tobin to learn more about the secrets of their success
20 November 2015
Tobin’s Topaz/Spar Express,
Owners: Eddie and Annette Tobin
Staff: 37 – 24 full-time, 13 part-time
Size: Approx. 3,000 – 3,500 sq ft
A former National Convenience Store of the Year winner, retailer Eddie Tobin is no stranger to a ShelfLife interview; in fact, this profile marks his fifth! It’s beyond doubt that the Letterkenny forecourt and convenience store run by Eddie and his wife Annette has proven it is worthy of our attention. Its consistently high standards have most recently been recognised by the EIQA which awarded Tobin’s the overall National Q Mark for Hygiene and Food Safety. No mean feat considering the single site operator was up against around 2,100 businesses audited right across the country. What’s more, since first entering the awards scheme in 2009, this year marks the fifth consecutive year that Tobin’s has claimed the highest level three Q Mark for the Best Forecourt Award.
So what is the Tobins’ secret to success? According to Eddie, the answer is to aim for the best from the off. “We entered the Q Mark at the highest level from the very start because we believe that if you aim for an A, at worst, you might get a B,” he says. “You don’t start and work your way up; we started to try and achieve as high a standard as possible from the beginning and work at that level and thankfully, we’ve managed to continue to do that.” Naturally, this involves a lot of continuous hard work and he concedes that “the paper trail is quite immense” but says “we have it as part of our routine now so we don’t find it very strenuous because that’s the way we operate”.
He accredits their high-ranking performance to Annette’s leadership on the project. “The EIQA Q Mark at this site is absolutely driven by Annette, ably helped by [store manager] Marian McGarrigle backing her up,” Eddie says. “We hadn’t entered the Q Mark programme before Annette came into the business and it certainly would not be achievable without her. The work in setting it up originally and getting the mark and keeping it up at that level is very much driven by her. My input is on the accounts and figures side of the business, she really drives that side and we could not achieve it without her.”
Their partnership is clearly driving strong results for the business; a fact which perhaps becomes most quickly evident when visiting the store at lunchtime. ShelfLife visited the store at 2pm on a Monday – and although one might expect to find the lunchtime trade tailing off at this time, the majority of the 93 seats were still occupied and it was clear that many locals have made Tobin’s their regular afternoon haunt. Eddie confirms that this level of brisk trade is a daily occurrence. “The 2014 calendar year was our best year’s turnover in the deli and this year we’re up just short of 8% on last year,” he says. “In the last 12 months, we have extended our seating area, from 62 to 93 seats.”
New seating area
This extension came about after a unit next door to the shop, which had been let out to a third party as a crèche, was vacated last September. The Tobins decided the store had enough footfall to warrant extra seating and so set about its conversion last Halloween, with a ‘coffee shop’ feel. “We thought we’d go for a more relaxed feel,” explains Eddie. “On our main floor, we cater for a lot of people and the window is small for lunchtime, so they want to come in and get their lunch quickly, but with the new area, we went for a different feel. We wanted to have more of a coffee shop style where people might like to sit and stay a bit longer, so we purposefully went for a different approach than our main floor, to give a variation for customers.”
The factor that has always remained a constant however is the Tobins’ strong reputation throughout Letterkenny for providing good food. “We do everything from scratch, we have very little bought in products, says Eddie. “We have meat from local suppliers and butchers’ sausages. That’s our model, we offer restaurant quality food in a forecourt environment and it’s served us well, the footfall shows that,” he adds. What’s more, the team work hard to ensure that they keep their offering interesting for their customers. “We change it daily, there’s five main dinners on every day, which will always include a fish, a chicken, and a vegetarian option,” Eddie explains. We do a €5 sit-in special as well aimed at the student market and that varies too. We print a menu daily and our two chefs decide what they’re going to do that day so it’s day by day, it’s not rotational. Next Monday’s offering will be different from this Monday.”
This effort to constantly prepare a varied offering of tasty, fresh food has paid off for the Tobins, with the deli currently accounting for more than a third of the store’s overall turnover with 14 dedicated staff. What’s more, that is without the deli being open on either Sundays or evenings. While the entire site is open from 7.30am to 10.30pm, the deli opens from just 7.30am to 4pm on Monday to Saturday. Explaining the decision to close the deli on Sundays, Eddie says: “There’s 120 eating places in Letterkenny so the Sunday offering just wouldn’t work.” Likewise during the evenings, although its prime location beside Letterkenny Institute of Technology means the deli attracts plenty of student and commuter trade throughout the day, there is no housing situated along the Port Road, so it simply doesn’t get the residential evening trade.
Another issue that keeps the Tobins on their toes is the high level of competition present on their doorstep in Letterkenny. This played a key role in their decision to add an off-licence department in-store two years ago. “It’s a good addition, but it’s a very price-sensitive market,” Eddie notes. “Especially with a major Tesco right behind us, two Lidls, two Aldis and two Dunnes Stores in Letterkenny as well.” However, he didn’t want to risk customers deciding to go elsewhere because they didn’t have an off-trade section. “We felt there were other forecourts that had an off-licence so potentially customers were going somewhere else because we didn’t have that offer in place,” he says. “We were trying to give them a one-stop-shop so that there’s no reason, if they were looking for a bottle of wine on a Friday evening, they might have bought their fuel somewhere else as well. We’re trying to ensure that we’re catering for all our customers.”
Investing in equipment and staff
Another change that the Tobins have delivered is that in August, they installed new pumps on their forecourt, alongside a new Stationmaster three lane till and a new CCTV system. This interlinks with the tills so all-in-all this added up to a significant investment in equipment. However Eddie reckons it’s worth it as he now has “a wholly seamless system from tills to pumps”.
While change is necessary within the FMCG arena however, one area that has largely stayed constant for the Tobins is their staff. “Staff retention is key to our business,” says Eddie, who believes they have the best staff and are subsequently eager to keep them! In fact, out of a team of 37, 22 staff members have been based at Tobin’s for seven years, and a further six have been there for up to five years, with only around four new staff in the last two years. As Eddie explains: “We try and ensure that we employ the right staff, and we make a good effort to retain them as well, because we invest in staff training. We want to have the best people working here because I believe it works. It delivers high customer service and the standards both hand in hand, and they are both key priorities for our operation.” The business has organised both external training previously and Eddie says Spar’s Virtual Academy online training is “very beneficial”.
Overall since joining Spar three years ago, Eddie says the business has improved through “utilising their system, feedback and bestsellers’ figures by category. All that information is available for us now which we didn’t previously have, so now we’re trying to use it to ensure that we have the correct range. There’s always tweaking because what works in an urban area, may not work in Donegal but it’s critical to ensure that you’re maximising the shelf space. Our store area is small in relation to the seating area so we have to ensure we have the correct product on the shelf which is what our customer is looking for.” Eddie is also impressed with Spar’s wide range of own-brand goods, which he will “actively look through” to pick the best products for their impulse-driven store, where he notes that “Spar toilet roll, Spar firelogs and Spar Jaffa Cakes are very big sellers”. Another major advantage is that there is a Value Centre “literally across the road” and Spar also offers an impressive four-week promotional cycle.
So what is next for the award-winning store? “We’d love to change to the new Spar image now with the black tiles and revitalise the store,” says Eddie. As he points out: “Stores evolve very quickly and even though we’re with Spar for just over three years, you have to constantly evolve and change and improve.” While Eddie is a keen fan of the group’s new look he is adamant that he does not want to have to shut up shop in order to get the job done. “You cannot shut your doors because you’re allowing your customers to go elsewhere,” he says. “We’re currently liaising with Spar to see how we can do that without impacting on business and work out the logistics behind it.”
Entering awards will continue to be an important part of business for the Tobins. “Obviously you can’t win every year,” says Eddie, “but you set the bar – you need to set a target that you want to achieve and do your best.” In fact, he actively welcomes criticism if it’s made constructively and will allow him to improve his store. “When having external auditors come in and critique your business, there’s always something wrong, but what we want to know is how do you fix it and improve it and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. If there ever was something wrong, we have fixed it. I have no issue with someone coming and giving feedback on the way that we do things because it’s about continuous improvement.” Undoubtedly it’s this mentality that explains the Tobins’ success when it comes to accumulating accolades.