Training to win
Training is key for retailer Sean Hoban, owner of Spar Express in Listowel, and each of his forecourt c-stores is learning from its predecessors to deliver maximum results.
13 October 2009
Owner: Sean Hoban
Manager: Helen Sayers
Size: 2,000 sq ft
Sitting in its smart new ‘training room,’ it quickly becomes apparent that training is a priority at the Spar Express which opened in Listowel, Co Kerry, only a month ago. In fact, the spacious room, which faces a glass wall out onto a first floor balcony, and features an impressive looking octagon of boardroom desks as its focal point, could be regarded as the HQ for owner Sean Hoban’s expanding retail enterprise.
“As you can see here in the training room, we would hope that whatever we learn from our experiences here, we will be able to move out into our other locations,” explains Hoban.
That’s not to say Listowel is Hoban’s first store however. On the contrary, it’s actually his fourth. His first was launched “during the height of the property boom” in 2004 in Celbridge, Co Kildare. Next up, he opted for another Co Kildare store, this time in Allenwood, which he opened in May 2008. A shop in Blakes Cross, off the N1, followed in quick succession, and the team has plans in the pipeline for a fifth, having already bought a bigger site in Carrick-on-Suir for this purpose.
Starting with the shop
Listowel has still been able to provide a valuable blueprint for the other sites though, because Hoban and his team had the freedom to design it to their exact specifications from the start. Whereas the group’s first store in Celbridge had planning restraints which meant it could only be changed internally and “the footprint would have to remain exactly as per planning,” Hoban says that at Listowel his team was able to “start with the shop, and build the building around it.”
“It was like making exactly what you want and putting an envelope around it. That way is so much easier because you get the right space from the beginning,” he comments.
“Obviously you still have to build it to the approval of the planners and the fire officer but if you start from a blank sheet of paper it’s so much easier to do all the things you want, rather than having to change them later.”
So what are the most valuable lessons Hoban would hope to impart throughout his growing retail empire? His response to this question exhibits a good dollop of common sense; delivering high standards in deli, the right price and quality are all deemed “essential.”
“The other thing we’ve learnt is that providing a good, clean disabled toilet is essential in all of our locations,” he adds. “At the moment in this country, if someone wants to use the toilet, it’s exceptionally difficult to find one and public WCs are closing right across Ireland.”
He likewise notes that “from the convenience point of view,” it’s “crucial to provide every service a person could possibly need,” including baby-changing units in bathrooms, ATMs, top-ups and bin tags. “It’s not called a convenience store for nothing and if you’re not convenient, you’re not a convenience store,” is Hoban’s no-nonsense verdict.
Delivering on deli
On the subject of delivering a deli offering to remember, he says that in order to achieve the right standard, he decided to employ a qualified chef in the position of deli manager at the Listowel store. He also believes he has succeeded in delivering an enticing price-point.
Whereas customers wouldn’t have regarded a €5 spend as breaking the bank during the Celtic Tiger heyday, he notes “€5 is now a one day spend. People are not going to take a risk, they’re going to go and hunt quality. To meet this demand in Listowel, we’re offering an evening meal for €4.99 of meat, veg and potatoes. It’s very, very successful, and we think that’s the way forward.”
Tellingly, Hoban and his team decided to position the deli bar right at the front of the shop, rather than “where it traditionally was in the past…tucked somewhere down at the back.” His aim was “to showcase the quality of the product, to show people what we can do,” and he believes initial sales show this strategy has already paid off.
“The breakfast roll man has definitely diminished but people still have to eat, and offering price and quality has been the basis of success in our store. For example, at lunchtime, we are doing a carvery roll for €4.15 and we’re sourcing our meat from the local butcher, and that’s what people are looking for; a quality product.”
Likewise, getting the store’s coffee offering right was also central, considering that “the Irish who were a nation of tea-drinkers, have very evidently switched over to coffee over the last 10 or 15 years.” Tim Hortons was the supplier Hoban decided to roll out across all his stores, on the basis that it’s “one of the best ranges in the world.”
The team also went to “the expense of putting two coffee machines side by side so that when people want their coffee, they don’t have to wait.” Another concept Hoban believes has received a favourable reaction from customers is the ‘Blizz’ ice cream machine from Martin Food Equipment. According to Hoban, the team introduced it to “enhance ice cream sales and stretch the ice cream season beyond the summer months.” Its flexibility allows it to offer milkshakes, ice cream in a cone and ice cream in a cup with toppings.
Hoban, whose family owned a grocery business in Ballylongford, says he is not concerned about the future. Despite experiencing the burst of the property bubble, which “was supposed to be a soft landing, but was more like a plane flying into a mountain,” he notes from a more optimistic perspective that the flipside of this is lower building costs now. “We therefore don’t have that higher overhead to start off with, and overall, I think if you have an excellent building, serve the right products and have the right staff, you will succeed where maybe others won’t.”
On this point, he concedes that while Spar may have a more expensive fit-out per square foot than some other groups, he opted for it because it “seemed to me to be the most progressive brand, with the most cutting edge and modern look to it.”
He adds; his business partner, who is a trained surveyor, deals with the development side of the business and is therefore able to achieve “the right look at the right price.”
“Realistically, everybody’s got bank loans and you want to build a building on the same equation as your products, getting best quality at the best price. But if you don’t get the look, you might be the fastest runner in the world but the guy with the better sneakers might just have a better chance at it,” he comments.
Everybody needs good neighbours
Similarly, the team didn’t compromise on quality for its latest store opening – although it did decide to do things a little differently. Instead of a glamorous official opening this time around, Hoban opted to invite 60 of the store’s neighbours, who he says were “very good to us” during construction.
“As you can see with this site, we’re in a streetscape so we were delighted to have our neighbours in and get to know them. We knew a lot of them just from talking at the site. It wasn’t the glamorous opening but we really enjoyed it because this was our neighbours who we are going to have to live with for a long, long time and we’ve already built a relationship which is great.
He adds: “Some of the neighbours said to me, ‘It’s wonderful now I only have to go up the road,’ and some of them actually went and checked on the shelves, and as they were leaving said, ‘Yes, you’ve got all the products I want.’ So I’m very happy.”
A recommendation that would surely be music to the ears of any retailer trying to build up a solid local reputation for a new store.