Platinum and Gold

Rachel Kilmartin, Marty Whelan, and Damien Kilmartin
Rachel Kilmartin, Marty Whelan, and Damien Kilmartin

Damien and Rachel Kilmartin did it again at the 2008 C-Store Awards, taking the Platinum Award for their N6 Centra



7 January 2009

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“Thriving living hubs in the towns and villages of Ireland” is how former GAA President, Sean Kelly described Ireland’s many convenience stores at this year’s ShelfLife C-Store Awards. Kelly, who was named Convenience Champion 2008, stressed the key position these stores occupy within local communities.

“It is imperative that these local enterprises survive if we are to retain, as a nation, our national identity based on strong local communities rather than soulless conglomerates without heart or shape,” he said in an impassioned awards ceremony speech.

The C-Store Awards recognise the efforts of convenience stores which are at the heart of local communities, and acknowledges those retailers who strive for excellence on a daily basis.

As ShelfLife publisher John McDonald commented: “Irish c-store retailers have invested millions of euros building and running fantastic stores in every corner of Ireland. These people deserve to be supported by their local communities.”

Of course, in these economically turbulent times, the recession could not be relegated to ‘elephant in the corner’ status. A reduction in VAT to allow stores compete better and a guarantee that the retail planning guidelines will not be changed, were two government measures Convenience Champion Kelly said would help ensure the local shop’s future.
However, as he aptly pointed out, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” It is the passion each of our finalists put into their stores, which will ensure they are not victims of Ireland’s latest downturn.

 And the winner is…

Chairman of judging panel, Joe Commerford shares his thoughts on this year’s winners:

Spar Oakpark, Tralee, Co.Kerry (Gold winner under 2,500 sq ft)

“This is a stand alone store outside Tralee, which has exceptional standards. It has an impressive range, and excellent staff friendliness and service, making it a most deserving winner”

Tougher Express, Newhall, Naas, Co. Kildare (Gold winner 5,000 to 7,500 sq ft)

“The very experienced general manager Pat O’Neill has developed this store into a busy destination stop…His new totally separated concept off-licence behind glass can be closed off at the touch of a switch. The store standards, range, pricing and records are all excellent. The forecourt, one of the biggest in the country is serviced, clean and has excellent pricing”

Kilmartin’s N6 Centra, Dublin Road, Athlone (Platinum and gold winner 2,500 to 5,000 sq ft)

“This is a shop to make a visit to. With a large forecourt, superb deli and seating area, a large coffee dock, and wide range of fresh foods and pick up and go ranges. The store is managed to a very high standard of merchandising and cleanliness. Their pricing is excellent and above all their customers are kings”

Show us how it’s done 

For the second time, Kilmartins has shown the competition what it takes to really be the best. Rachel and Damien Kilmartin show us what it really means to have pride in your business

Kilmartin's N6 Centra is the ShelfLife C-Store of the Year for the second time

Kilmartin’s N6 Centra is the ShelfLife C-Store of the Year for the second time

Kilmartins N6 Centra Texaco forecourt store has been operating just outside the town of Athlone for almost 10 years. Standing on approx 4000 sq ft, the store had its last major overhaul two and half years ago, but this was by no means the first or last improvement to it.

"It’s revamped generally on a regular basis," Rachel Kilmartin tells me. "If something is getting tired looking, we change it." The evidence is around me. Like Rachel Kilmartin, the shop shows hardly any sign of aging. As she shows me around, I can see an easy, unforced friendliness between her and the staff, and likewise with Damien when he appears, croissant in hand. After only minutes in their company I can tell the pleasant atmosphere in their store is no accident.

Bold and beautiful

Not to be misled by their easy, laid back manner, Rachel and Damien Kilmartin take a very progressive approach when it comes to their store; in terms of its running as a professional enterprise, in its layout and design. With a clear vision of their business and how they wanted to present it to the public, they took bold decisions and were not afraid to put their money where their mouths are.

"When we were fitting out this store, we wanted to spend a bit more money," says Damien. Consequently Kilmartin’s N6 shop is beyond the spec of your typical Centra.

The Kilmartins took the decision to style the in-store layout their own way, opting not to use the traditional corporate colours of the Centra brand, but instead favouring dark hardwood finishing off-set by a cream coloured interior.
They journeyed to Germany to find the best solutions, unwilling to compromise and unafraid to invest. "We sourced the deli counter in Germany," says Rachel, "Every deli counter that was available in Ireland looked fine from a customer point of view but from a staffing point of view, they were always at different levels. So a customer dealing with a member of my staff might be able to see them at one counter but not the next one."

Devoted to customer service

"I wanted my staff to be facing the customer at all times" explains Rachel, so on the service side of the counter, everything the staff needs, from packaging to utensils, is all at the front facing the customer. "Everything they need is at their disposal in front if them, so that they’re never turning their back to the customer."

In addition, ovens and other such equipment have been moved away from the service area, where a staff member dealing with that work won’t be thought to be serving behind the deli counter. "It’s not fair for a customer to think that they’re being ignored so we moved this out of their point of view."

The deli is the strongest performing department of the store and as a result, the husband and wife team has devoted much consideration and investment into perfecting it and ensuring its long-term profitability. They are particularly proud of its quality-assuring appearance and with good reason. "A lot of people have visited this store and we’ve yet to meet anyone that doesn’t like it," says Damien.

On the lookout for new ideas

In addition to the extensive work on the deli and foodservice area, Kilmartins N6 Centra has had a host of other layout features added. "We put in a new false ceiling specifically so we could install new lighting," says Damien, "Three years ago we had tubular, fluorescent lighting and we didn’t like it. So we had to actually take down the whole roof and put up a new one."

The Kilmartins spend time travelling around visiting different stores and looking for ideas, which has paid off particularly in respect of store visits made in Germany and England. "The front windows was actually an idea we got from BP in England," says Damien, referring to the expansive glazing on the shop front which lays open the whole interior.

In return, Rachel and Damien are happy for other retailers to visit their store and have been paid the compliment of inspiring similar glass fronts in competitors’ stores, including certain ShelfLife C-Store Awards opponents.
"If somebody comes to us and says ‘can you give us some advice or some assistance?’ we’d absolutely do it," says Rachel, understanding that retailers, including themselves, want to look around and see what’s out there.

Based on their travels, Damien confidently asserts that the best service stations he has seen between Europe and the USA are in Ireland. "I visited 80 service stations in four days, in New York and New Jersey, and there was nothing to touch Ireland."

"The offering is better here," adds Rachel, "People have moved it forward a lot in Ireland." While other countries have achieved impressive designs, Ireland has evidently found that balance between image and product offering, thanks in no small way to the efforts of entrepreneurs like Rachel and Damien Kilmartin.

Becoming a local destination 

"Our concept is really that you don’t have to buy petrol, we want to be a stand alone shop as well," says Damien, explaining why he and his wife have spent the time and effort they have on developing the store to such a high standard. In its 10 years’ trading Kilmartins N6 has achieved the merit of becoming a destination store; literally a destination, as the nearby roundabout has even taken its name.

Ironically, the bypass road that was feared would damage the business has actually revealed its strength and adaptability, as the reduction in passing trade has given way to an influx of returning local customers.

"Our local customers are becoming more and more important to us. Since we won the award two years ago there’s a noticeable difference in our trading. Two years ago, you wouldn’t have had that many special offers in our shop. It was a destination store; I’d say 60 to 70% of our business was Dublin to Galway traffic. Now it’s 60 to 70% local."

"It was up to us to change the business," says Damien, and that’s what Kilmartins did. Introducing a range of special offers – over 100 on the day I visited – and changing the focus of the store to suit the needs of local customers. "Especially the coffee shop," says Rachel, "When the road changed I was sure that it was going to drop significantly and it didn’t at all. As a matter of fact it stayed the same and even went up, in some cases." To their surprise, local customers like to avail of the coffee shop for take-away and sit-in trade, as they come for other shopping needs.

Damien has put particular effort into the store’s wine ranges. "Damien is a wine buff as well, therefore you always have a very good selection of wine here. Always!" Rachel laughs. It did catch my eye on the way in, I must admit.

"We would carry a lot of probably more expensive wines than most people would carry in a service station," says Rachel, and Damien adds, "We’d have a better selection than normal for a convenience store." Kilmartins sources wines from five different companies, attempting to offer enough variety and balance between value and premium wines. Once again, Damien and Rachel want to do more to make their business better than average.

Awards go leor

In addition to winning ShelfLife C-Store of the Year (for the second time), Kilmartins was also awarded Cleanest Store for the second consecutive year, in the EQA National Awards. "That’s a very important award to win from a hygiene perspective because the amount of paperwork and training that goes into it is huge," says Rachel. "And we’re the first Centra to win it two years in a row as well," Damien adds.

Kilmartins is also subject to a litany of internal awards procedures, including six mystery shops from Texaco, from which Rachel and Damien’s store won Best Forecourt store every two months. In fact taking their top five scores out of the six visits, Kilmartins achieved 500%.

"We, as far as we’re concerned, are in your competition all year round. And as far as our staff are concerned. That standard that you see today, should be like that everyday," says Damien. The staff in Kilmartins of course play a huge role in the store’s success and share in the pride Rachel and Damien feel for its achievements. In celebration, the Kilmartins crew had plans to kick back with a few drinks and a few more store visits, just in case they should stop thinking about retail amidst all the celebrations! Having met the Kilmartins however, I couldn’t really expect anything less.

"We feel we’re very progressive, very proactive, especially when it comes to the design of the store," says Rachel, "Everybody works together and there’s nobody any better than anyone else. I’m no better than anybody out there and they’re no better than me. We all do what has to be done. If that means we have to clean toilets then so be it."

Now, if only every business owner took that much pride in their business. 



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