Stephen Mooney with the staff of Londis Plus, Swinford, and Shane Hopkins, regional manager ADM Londis
Originally from Navan, Stephen Mooney was the manager of a busy Londis convenience store in Duleek, County Meath. Having gained as much as he could from that role he felt it was time to move onwards and upwards. "It came to the point where I wanted to look for something for myself". With the help of a contact at AMD Londis, Tommy Devlin, "We looked around and about from Swinford to Ballyfermot and everywhere in between, and we ended up here".
A brave move
"Opening the shop was probably easier in many respects than the move and the buying and the selling of the houses," said Stephen, a husband and father of two young children. "We couldn’t have picked a worse time to sell our house! And then settling the children. But Shirley had fallen in love with the house down here and the lads love it. We‘ve so much space. We’re in the country now which is very new to us."
Speaking of new, this larger format store in a very rural community makes a big change from the c-store in the commuter town. The supermarket sits on an ample 7,500 sq ft which is predominantly under food and drink with the exception of a small area of non-grocery. I note the two-for-one offer on Alaskan Pine bathroom units. "We have a few bits and pieces like that, you have to for the margin. And it’s something different that will separate you from the chap up the street. We’re all selling cornflakes," he smiles.
Swinford presents a very different type of market. "The town is small but there’s a huge catchment area and I’m looking to dig into that," says Stephen, "I don’t know where half the customers are coming from. It’s a very rural community, there are individual farms and houses dotted all over the place". It certainly is no easy feat to make this transition, as Stehpen’s present situation attests. The rural market is complex to say the least.
When running the business is a hard enough job as it is, why choose a place like Swinford? "I liked the town," is Stephen’s simple answer. "I got a good feeling from it and got positive feedback from people I spoke to". Once he and his wife had found the right house and the right school, everything fell into place.
So how has Swinford taken to its new, modern Londis Plus? "The deli is really coming along, it took a while to get going but it’s getting there. We have a lot of the school kids at lunchtime and after school, and we get a few of their parents in then as well". At this we depart from the expected. "Breakfast wouldn’t be huge, it’s a very quiet town here in the mornings". I mention that his deli doesn’t look the same as your average modern deli. "I suppose when we first opened it would have been the same as everyone else’s. As you say, geared towards the breakfast trade and the builder, and all the rest of it. We had to change it because that just wasn’t around, with the slump in the building trade but also because that’s just how this town is. It is different".
Getting it right takes time
I’m reminded that this is a relatively new business here. Any new store needs time to find its feet. Stephen faces the added challenges of taking on a completely different type of audience. ‘Is this a very different experience from the store in Duleek?’ I ask. "Oh yeah, for a start that was a convenience store, so a totally different ball game altogether. There we would never have had a trolly-shop but here most of my shoppers have a trolly. Even if there mightn’t be enough of them with the trollies!" he jokes. It’s very much a process of working from month to month, finding out what works and what doesn’t and adjusting the offer until he strikes the right balance for his target audience, a small rural town.
The Deli counter
"And that’s it. Christmas was great. We had all the selection boxes and the stuff you have to take in for the season and just by sheer luck, we got it right. Easter was a disaster. We just had Easter eggs coming out of our ears (looking around at the premium eggs still cluttering up his office and his shop floor). We got left with a lot of the expensive eggs, all the standard eggs went no problem.
"You only learn by your mistakes. Now we know what we sold, we know what we’re capable of selling, and next year we’ll have something to mark it on. When you’ve no idea what you’re going to do it just makes it that little bit harder. You’re guessing basically".
Stephen anticipates things will shift during the summer months as the schools close for the holidays and the west of Ireland enters its busiest tourist season. "We close at nine so we’ll probably extend that out to 10pm. We’d definitely usually be busier in the morning than the afternoon so I’d expect that to change too". There are no certainties at this stage which makes planning difficult. "Again as this is the first year, I don’t know for sure. It’ll take time".
Stephen’s deli counter does have a very appealing selection of different-looking homemade salads, and egg mayonnaise like you used to get at home. There’s a distinctly homely feel to the whole spread. "For me, the fresh element has to be there, it has to look like it was made as opposed to being turned out of a tub". I chatter nostalgically about the delectable old-fashioned cream buns which are baked fresh in-store everyday. In the context of this store and this retailer I can see this is a very genuine and personalised offering, with no hint of ‘brand positioning’.
I’m starting to see why this retailer is ultimately suited to the small rural town. "It’s a bit more work but I think it’s better and it’s starting to work, it’s starting to pay off for us here". So the main traffic through the store has been more grocery shoppers than people coming for deli food?
"Yes initially, but I do see a shift. It’s definitely doing that bit better and seeing more business than it did the other side of Christmas. Previously it was very much customers getting the pound of ham with their shopping."
In another departure from the ‘norms’ experienced by the majority of retailers I speak to is the off-licence of Stephen’ shop. "The last part of the store that we’ve made an effort to tackle was the off-licence. Again, where I was prior to here, wine would have been huge, which is mainly the reason I extended out the shelving. I was still in that mindset, but it’s different here. When we opened spirits was very good, beer was okay and wine was very poor. It’s quite a big section for wine out there so we had to do something to get it going."
A good wine selection is an important focus of the store
Once again Stephen found a way through to his core market, enticing customers into his wine section through promotion and placement exercises. "I think maybe people weren’t used to buying wine here when it was a shop before, but it worked, it served its purpose. You can’t come into the shop now and not know that we sell wine". Undeniably good progress coming from such a low base. "Wines now, as a percentage of the off-licence, it’s where it should be," he says.
The real challenge
The biggest threat to the small town retailer is emergence of bigger stores outside of their town, attracting customers away with massive ranges and low prices. Stephen says he has a fight on his hands trying to keep people from heading to Castlebar or other neighbouring towns with a large multiple or discounter. Speaking of the Eurospar up the street, he says, "I’d say we both would spend more time trying to stop people leaving the town than we would competing with one another.
And that’s just the thing with small towns, the draw is the bigger towns with the Dunnes and the Tescos and so on". He mentions a few places in proximity to Swinford, including Kilkelly, a small village within the shop’s radius. "It has a convenience store but nowhere really to do your shopping". Stephen hopes to attract the business of the small villages and towns close to his supermarket as well as from his own town. "You try to get them to come this way as opposed to the other direction, to Ballyhaunis or even up to Claremorris", about 20 minute drive away.
So what can smaller retailers like Stephen do to keep business in the town? "I think you have to offer services. You can go into any Tesco in the country, and I’m not picking on Tesco, but in any of them you know what you’re going to get. It’s all standard, but there’s no face, there’s no community.
"Starting up here, the important thing for me was to be out there, meeting people and talking to them. I am new to the town so I had to get out there and meet and greet, and get to know everybody. Now, I would know quite a lot of my customers".
Sponsorship of local clubs and organisations is another good option for the community-minded retailer. "Last weekend we there was a golf classic so we sent up hampers – you remind people that you are here. There’s people who will come looking for sponsorship and they are inclined to go to the local guy, and hopefully more and more."
A well-presented meats display
Stephen’s presence in the shop makes it hard for his customers not to know him. "I start at about half seven and I stay here until about 10 o’clock. We’re still finding our feet so I really want to be there with my finger on everything and know what’s going on, and what’s not going on.
"I do a bit of everything. If I have to throw on the deli coat and get in behind the deli, I’ll do it. If I have to go in behind the butcher counter and serve out the meat. I’ll do it, and you need to be able to do anything."
So will Stephen Mooney be able to step back or even some time off in the near future? "Or a day off at least (laughs). It’s not all bad, I do enjoy it – I like it. I would like to spend some more time at home. Ideally, if I could see more of the boys I’d be a lot happier but you don’t open up in this business and do nine to five, Monday to Friday, it doesn’t happen, and I didn’t expect it to happen. It is a lot of commitment but it won’t be forever.
"Going forward it’s just a matter of growing the vital categories, such as the deli, and the off-licence, which is doing better now. We got off to a good start – then it did kind of level out a bit – it’s just trying to get to the next level now". Endless hard work, challenges and responsibility. Choosing this path must take a particular type of person. Though tired, Stephen still exudes the contentedness of being his own boss, "It was a huge decision to make in the first place, but having said that I’m glad I made it."
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