The French connection…

It’s now a decade since the French siblings spotted a business opportunity in their home village of Clough in County Down – and the thriving Mace store that the trio established there on a former tile showroom site at the Castlewellan Road has grown its profits every year since.

It’s now a decade since the French siblings spotted a business opportunity in their home village of Clough in County Down – and the thriving Mace store that the trio established there on a former tile showroom site at the Castlewellan Road has grown its profits every year since.

In April this year, French’s c-store was named Mace Store of the Year by Musgrave during its annual awards ceremony and that’s all the more remarkable when you realise that Paul, Roy and Nicola French came into the retailing trade from the hospitality sector – none of them had ever managed a store before French’s Mace opened its doors in November 2000.
They had run a restaurant on Main Street in Clough that had been left to them by their father, Alan, who passed away in 1995. They ran that as a successful business for10 years before selling it again in 2005 in order to concentrate on the Mace store which, by that time, had begun to thrive.

Their foray into retail had begun early in 2000 when Nicola, who at that point worked in the Post Office in Downpatrick, noticed an internal circular appealing for applicants to open a new Post Office in Clough:
“We talked about it and we instantly realised that this could be just the perfect opportunity for us, but we were a little concerned that in terms of business, it might not be enough,” recalls Paul French. “So we approached J&J Haslett to see if they might be interested in opening a branch of Mace at the same time.”

Haslett’s came in behind the project, matching the French’s own investment, and Clough first symbol store opened on the former site of McCall’s Tiles. Initially, it was a fairly standard 1,000 sq. ft. store with a strong grocery offering and its own Post Office, which Nicola managed.

“It was certainly a big decision for us to branch into retail like that,” says Paul, “but we were determined and we put everything we had into making it a successful business. We were confident too, we’d done our homework and we knew there was a need in the area. There was a filling station on Main Street in Clough, but at the time, it was in need of re-development and we knew that a good convenience offering would go down well.”

And that confidence was rewarded – business at French’s Mace has increased year-on-year since it first opened its doors:
“In the early days particularly, Haslett’s were a great help to us and that good relationship has continued with the people at Musgrave. We were completely green, of course, having come straight from the restaurant trade to retail, but everything went very smoothly, we had no real issues and that’s the way it’s always stayed for us.”


The Frenchs continued to build their business for the next five years, at which point they bought the building on the Castlewellan Road which they had been leasing from the McCall’s. That investment was funded by the sale of the restaurant business.
“At the same time, we approached Mace and put a proposal to them,” continues Paul. “The five-year lease was coming up for renewal and year-on-year, the business was showing growth, so we felt there was good potential for a bigger convenience store in the area. We were looking for a 3,000 sq. ft. store with its own Post Office and a strong food-to-go offering with the emphasis on fresh food and dairy produce.”

That expansion went ahead and in 2007, an 800 sq. ft. off-licence was added to the shop:
“The drinks end of the business has levelled out since then and to be honest, it’s probably harder now than it was when it opened four years ago,” remarks Paul. “The one big reason for that, I think is that the multiples really know how to take advantage of every holiday selling opportunity, whether it’s the World Cup, Christmas or whatever, they will bombard the consumer with great offers and it’s hard to compete with that. But we do well overall and the off-licence is particularly popular at the weekends. Convenience is definitely a big factor.”

The food-to-go offering is consistently popular at French’s. It has a 12ft serve-over and it offers the usual range of savoury breakfast goods and lunchtime salads and sandwiches with two daily specials. Food-to-go demands a lot from a retailer’s resources, both in terms of investment and staff, but French’s have gone some of the way towards solving that problem by employing one member of staff with sole responsibility for the food-to-go counter and nothing else. The counter also closes down at 2pm each day – Paul says that despite the odd enquiry about longer opening hours from shoppers, it simply doesn’t make economic sense to keep serving hot food beyond that time.
Paul also says that the development of the business over the years has been easier because of the close relationship all three siblings have with each other:
“It’s certainly a bonus because almost all the time, you’ll be on the same sheet with things. We’ve been working together for 10 years and we’re all focused on the same thing: improving the business and bringing a better standard of shopping to the people of Clough.”

Other major changes to the store over the last two years or so have included the addition of an upstairs coffee shop – the Coffee Stop – this is another business leased to a separate proprietor, but Paul feels that it does add value to the Mace store’s overall offering. And CK Butchers opened its own 500 sq. ft. department inside the store last year.

Last year, the car park outside was also extended from 18 spaces to 32 – a move which, says Paul, has had a definite effect on footfall in the store.

So has Paul felt any consumer backlash from the current economic slowdown?

“I think we’re probably very fortunate in that we’re the only convenience store in the village,” he tells Ulster Grocer. “Although I do think that spending habits have changed and people now do more top-up shopping on a daily basis, which again benefits us. Things are changing, but in our favour I feel.”

Going forward, Paul says that he thinks the French siblings would be content simply to retain and consolidate what they have:
“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like to see us get bigger, we would look at expansion and we might take on another store,” he adds. “We’re very fortunate in that we have a health village opening up across the road here with a doctor’s surgery, chemist, dentist, optician and so on and I can see us all bouncing off each other very nicely. I’m very happy with the way things are at present, however, and very glad that we’ve been able to build such a consistently successful business here in Clough. We’re hoping for more big things in the future.”

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