King of the road
After winning best newcomer to Gala at the group’s annual awards, retailer Tom King explains why his “recession-reversing” c-store can only improve with time.
11 December 2009
Since opening in June, Tom King’s Gala on the Dublin Road in Athy, has already set itself apart as a strong contender within the convenience arena. The 1,500 sq ft store was recently named best newcomer to the Gala group at the annual Gala store of the year awards.
On first impressions alone, it’s not hard to see why it was deemed worthy of the award. For starters, the store’s whole-hearted adoption of the new Gala corporate theme creates strong visual appeal. Denise Lord, Gala customer services manager, explains that the express colours of greens, blues, yellows and greys, and Gala’s green capital G logo “run right the way through the store, from the markings on the front door to the in-store branding. While the resulting look is very corporate, it’s also very friendly and professional.”
The store’s appearance, created in conjunction with design company, 21 Spaces, also incorporates lighting hanging at two different heights to create a more airy feel. This was an important consideration for retailer Tom King, as he wanted customers to get an overview of where everything was in the store, before they even walked in.
“People come into a forecourt shop like this, and they’re probably focused on a red light that came on in the car. Basically, they want to get in and get out, so if they can’t see in through the window that’s going to make it more difficult. For that reason, we angled the aisles out to the window so that you can see into the shop.”
The fact display units are all no taller than mid-height likewise means that when someone walks in the door, “they can see all the offering and can see exactly where everything is.” Another important advantage according to King, is that it enables staff to observe if a customer at the far end of the store needs help.
Style and substance
A sense of style is also on display at the shop’s deli counter. Against a grey, polished slate background, a colourful mosaic tile strip on the back wall flags up the deli’s signage. King is keen to point out that this is not a case of style over substance however, as his deli forms a crucial part of his trade. Customers commuting from Athy to Dublin, will therefore find a strong range of options throughout the day, including freshly baked pizzas and take-away lamb or beef with potatoes and veg.
As someone who has run a successful and well-known fuel distribution company, King’s Oil, within a 35 mile radius of the area since 1984, King explains that initially he didn’t understand how vitally important the deli was in enabling his new store to thrive.
“Deli is the biggest category, it’s the engine and the draw. Before, looking at it from a fuel point of view, I didn’t appreciate how the deli is such a huge part of the store.” As a result, maintaining quality and standards in this area is now a major concern.
“We try to cook up everything fresh for the deli, and prepare fresh vegetables, to try to get a more authentic flavour, rather than using stuff that’s already prepared.”
Providing a varied range with different choices everyday is also essential for King. As he points out: “We get a good amount of repeat business and we don’t want to bore our customers.” Lord agrees with this assessment, adding that Gala’s menu boards featuring a daily choice, alongside a changing digital menu, also “enhances our offering from the counter.”
As King operates a 24-hour store, he explains that, “when the ploughing match was on, we had to keep the deli open until 11pm.” Normally however the deli stays open until 9pm, although staff, who are all HACCP trained, will try to accommodate customers who want something hot after this time.
“We also do a lot of pizzas at night that go out through the hatch, so people can now pop into our Merry Chef”, laughs King. He notes with satisfaction, that there’s also more people aware of the service, even “people coming home at three o’clock in the morning.”
Denise Lord confirms that Gala’s pizza concept, made at the dairy counter, has certainly proved popular so far. “It’s a whole new kind of in-house service where the customer can come in and order their pizza, they choose their toppings, the store wraps them, they’re cooked and they’re on their way.”
She also notes Gala has benefited substantially from the ‘staying in becoming the new going out’ trend. Stores are now selling a lot more take-away foods and the family-pack is performing better, because people will “come in and take a DVD and they’ll come in and take home the larger option.”
Another important upside of the downturn, according to King, is that he was able to employ staff with years of experience. “With the downturn, a lot of the symbol groups had laid off people, so there was a lot of people with bordering on 15 years of experience available,” he explains.
Having a strong team behind him has paid-off for King so far, as when asked if operating a 24-hour store is stressful, he replies that in actual fact, it makes life easier. “It’s less stress because for delivery purposes there’s always somebody here.”
He points out that during one night the previous week, thieves were able to rob the safe from Euro Shop in Athy town. “That sort of thing is happening seven days a week, it’s very prominent around the country now…With the amount of burglaries and break-ins nationwide, here there’s no down-time for somebody to say ‘well we could try and take a roof off.’”
In a busy commuter store such as his, it’s also useful to have staff prepare for the next part of the day around-the-clock, whether that involves cleaning the floor, or assembling all the deli food on racks in the fridge, “so you turn on the oven from half five to half six and you’re ready to go.”
The store also benefits from a seating area opposite the deli counter, which can accommodate just under 20 people. King describes this as having “a good atmosphere”, as it is separated from the rest of the shop by being located behind the check-out wall, which allows customers to relax away from the main action. So far this has proved a hit, especially with bus groups pulling in from the road. Another draw for the store’s passing trade is that all tables have their own wall socket. “A couple of guys come in and plug in their mobile phones if their batteries are dead, or do some work on their laptop,” says King.
In fact, he has plans to create a Wi-Fi area, however the shop’s broadband connectivity needs to be improved first. Lord explains a number of Gala stores are currently trialling Wi-Fi. “It’s only started and customers love it in a sit-down area. It’s the next step and the next service coming in.”
Value is another key draw for customers to the store, according to King. “We download new offers every four weeks, and customers can see our promotional offers from the moment they come in, because they’re flagged on every counter.” Lord adds that while Gala currently offers own brand lines such as bread and scones, the group will introduce a range of approx 12 own brand lines, as feedback from retailers has shown this is what they want.
With these advantages within his store, King is confident that his venture into the convenience arena, or “recession-reverser”, as he calls it, will work out. “We were hoping that there was higher margins in the convenience end; retailing fuel has become very competitive so the margins are under pressure all the time.”
Fortunately, Gala was on hand to “babysit” him through the move. “They were able to put the operation together from their experience in different fields. Also our local wholesaler in Portlaoise has a great reputation here and everyone speaks very highly of them.”
Subsequently, he is now confident that the store can only improve. He appreciates the specific feedback the store regularly receives from Gala, which Lord explains, “uses criteria based on each type of store from the front door to the back door, including service, customer care, and health and safety.”
These goal-posts have certainly proved useful for King so far. “We’re going up for best store next year,” he asserts. “It’s good that we’re being monitored because we know that we have to improve our game, and up our performance.”