Bleary-eyed commuters on the M1 will find a warm welcome at Castlebellingham’s new Mace forecourt. Just a week after the store’s opening manager Shirley Pronty working hard to keep the customers happy
12 September 2008
A smart red-bricked façade, set-off by Mace’s contemporary turquoise signage creates a striking impression of the new Mace store in Castlebellingham, County Louth. Even more striking is the fact that it’s the only forecourt in the village, sited just two miles from the M1 motorway.
It’s also the only symbol group store, not just in Castlebellingham but in the broader area, including towns such as Dromiskin and Annagassan. It’s no wonder therefore that store manager, Shirley Pronty is delighted with its location and says, “I think if you were to drive the length of the country, you wouldn’t find a site that was needed more than was needed here.”
“Our forecourt is our initial attraction,” explains Shirley, who manages the store for her brother Raymond. “Castlebellingham is rapidly turning into a commuter town… there’s estates going up and there’s several other estates in the town; probably 80% of them are commuters coming back and forth from Dublin so you need a petrol station, and we’re only two miles from the motorway.
“There’s also a service sign at the motorway which directs a lot of traffic here and when talking to neighbours before we started, they all said yep, we need a petrol station so we thought a petrol station was a good way to go.”
Although fuel may be the initial draw which pulls customers in, Shirley and her team have put a lot of thought into how to provide the best possible offering for the store’s custom base. With so many commuters visiting the store, the deli is of major importance. “We spent a lot of time and money designing the deli, making sure we got it right,” says Shirley. “We have three ovens and two large serve-overs, and we made sure we got the right size. We’re looking at the take-home option too, with our different tall sandwich fridges and we’re getting Mace pre-packed sandwiches in as well.” Shirley is also keen to enhance the store’s reputation as an “all-rounder offering fuel and convenience,” and plans to install an ATM as well as forecourt services such as water, air and a car wash at the popular site.
She decided to partner with BWG’s Mace brand because she says, “Out of all the companies that we spoke to, Mace were the most obliging and gave us the most of their time.” She was impressed with what Mace could offer in terms of branding, special in-house offers and their plans for the look and layout of the store. She also notes that Martin Food Equipment gave great help regarding store layout.
Delivering what customers want
Indeed, the store’s layout has been carefully thought out to maximise its 1,100 sq ft space. Shirley explains, “The deli was originally smaller at the start and we had a seating area in the corner.” However she decided to drop the seating area in favour of more shelf space and a bigger deli. “Being a busy road, we didn’t think it was going to be an area where people were going to come in and sit down… so this way we’re providing more for our take-out customers.”
The variety of hot and cold foods offered at the deli has also been carefully considered to deliver what the customer wants. Shirley notes that in Castlebellingham, which has a traditional rural and farming background, traditional homemade options seem to go down well.
The deli therefore offers a homemade range including a Forge meal of the day, lasagne, chicken curry and sweet and sour, as well as classics such as the breakfast roll – once immortalised in song by comedian Pat Shortt – along with paninis, bagels and salads. Shirley is also keen to expand the deli counter and says, “If there’s anything that we’re asked for that we don’t have, we’ll have it in by the next day.”
Trade at the newly opened store has been brisk. Shirley comments that despite the construction downturn, “There are still a lot of workers that pass this area and work in this area.” She adds, “We open at seven and as soon as the doors open, there’s people pulling up for fuel; builders, vans, lorries on their way to work, on their way to Dublin.” With all this activity, there’s a flurry of breakfast rolls, teas and coffees in the morning, followed by a slight dip before lunchtime, when Shirley notes, “The salad counter bar just booms.” In the evening Shirley and her staff are again kept busy with take-home options proving popular.
No typical day
As the store has been open for only a week at the time of our interview, retailers can no doubt empathise with Shirley’s statement that, “It’s been crazy to say the least!” When asked about what a typical day entails, she straightforwardly replies “I don’t know what a typical day is yet to be honest. I’m hoping to fall into some sort of routine where I’ll have so much to get done before 7am, I’ll have so much to do before 9am and so on, but at the minute we’ve still suppliers and various other people coming in. That’s new suppliers I haven’t seen before, so I’ll be talking to them and going through prices; basically I don’t have a typical day.”
Prepared for anything
Shirley is well-equipped to deal with the heavy workload involved in setting up a new shop however. Although only 27, she has worked for several years as assistant manager of a large supermarket in Northern Ireland with 150 staff, and so can confidently say, “I’ve faced every sort of drama and dilemma that retail can throw at you, so I’m prepared for anything.”
She previously studied Retail and Consumer Business in Edinburgh, and although this provided a good grounding in retail, says the theory is markedly different from the practice. “You can sit and read a book about customer service or customer satisfaction, but when you’re actually faced with a customer that’s being short-changed or needs a refund it’s a completely different experience,” she says.
However Shirley feels that she created her own practical experience by working part-time in shops and supermarkets throughout her time at college. “From day one, even from when I left school, I’ve been working in shops, on tills, on the shop floor, back office and so on so it’s all I’ve ever known,” she says. Ultimately, Shirley thrives in retail because she enjoys meeting people everyday, and describes interaction with suppliers, staff and customers as “the best part of my day. If a customer comes in and goes out happy, then I’m happy too.”
Although Shirley, who lives in Castleblayney, is not a local, she is making a concerted effort to get to know everyone and views the shop very much as a community-based store, where consumers are encouraged to be vocal about what they want to see stocked.
In the mix
BWG’s Barry Flynn believes that certainly the store currently has an enticing mix of products. “The shop’s mix is very profitable the way it’s laid out, you have your coffee leading when you come in the door; Cuisine de France facing you, then straight on to your deli and groceries are to the right as well, so the mix is working out very well.
” What’s more, he adds, is that Mace was a good choice for the store as the brand is currently very strong in the North-East region. “On a recent count of stores in Drogheda and the surrounding area Mace accounted for 12 shops. Meanwhile, Dundalk is up near the nine or ten store mark, including this one so definitely the brand awareness is there in the area.”
For the foreseeable future, Shirley will also be busy furthering brand awareness by letting everyone know about her own store. For the next six months, she plans on conducting a major marketing campaign using point-of-sale advertising and generating coverage in the local papers. “Getting our face out there and getting ourselves known would be our main topic now for the next six months,” says Shirley with confidence, clearly relishing this task.