As Ulster Grocer magazine celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, a Co Antrim forecourt-based grocery store is also marking four decade of success, having similarly been established in 1972. But, as Brian McCalden reports, it is doing so by both continuing investment and expansion as well as the introduction of cutting-edge technology that leads the trade across the whole island of Ireland.
In 1972 Peter McCool’s father, Patsy, made a decision to move away from pulling pints in the family’s Ballymena pub to pumping petrol instead – something that was very brave in those difficult and turbulent times.
Today, Peter is marking the 40th anniversary of the first Phoenix petrol station by putting itself at the forefront of technology with the first ever use of pump mounted video advertising displays on the newly re-branded Maxol pumps – themselves state-of-the-art and carrying Maxol’s new imagery for the first time too.
Things have always been fast-paced, as Peter explained: “We literally lived above the shop, in the adjacent family home so I was involved from the very start while still at school and have seen many, many developments over the past 40 years.”
That said, there are some things that don’t change with Peter recalling the very first grocery product to be stocked in the small forecourt shop in addition to the pints of engine oil and fan belts that were the main currency in those days.
“Snowballs,” he laughed were the first such line to be added to the motoring necessities, and are still – of course – part and parcel of the vastly expanded Phoenix store today which has been successfully trading as a Centra store for several years.
“In the early days we were an entirely independent, and relied on sales reps from all the various companies such as Mars and Cadbury and the various local suppliers of bread and dairy products to keep our orders flowing in,” Peter explained.
“We first signed-up with the then newly arrived Costcutter in the 1990s before moving to the Centra brand to enjoy a strong relationship with Musgrave Retail Partners NI, who have provided great support over the recent years,” Peter said, noting that he is also operating Supervalu Ballymoney.
There has also been change in the forecourt: “For almost all the 40 years of pumping petrol we were a BP station, only recently converting to Maxol with the very latest, ground-breaking pumps now in use, complete with pump faces that incorporate high-tech video advertisements and the new Maxol logo – both being the first such use in any part of the island of Ireland.”
Peter is a very entrepreneurial retailer and he has invested in the store heavily: the latest phase of development includes a new enlarged car parking facility (over 60 spaces) and delivery bay, which greatly enhances the safety and convenience to customers.
In addition, a new flood defence wall has been erected providing added protection to local residents. There’s also a new pharmacy more or less on-site too, so there’s all the more reason for customers to stop and buy.
He is also looking to the future in a big way with the introduction of a revolutionary fast-charge facility for electric cars.
Working with the Ecar Project and NIE, special rapid chargers will be introduced close to the major roads across NI that can charge a vehicle to 80% of its capacity in just 25 minutes and The Phoenix is getting one of them.
“We will therefore be prepared for the face of future motoring needs for the next four decades too,” explained Peter.
Already The Phoenix is a major player in the community and is open all hours, (actually from before 6am to 11pm, daily) and offers facilities that include the Lottery, PayPoint, a very busy post office, (with Peter as Postmaster) and a hot food, deli bar, sandwich bar and coffee dock.
“We value our customers, with some being regulars for the whole 40 years of trading and have long-since changed from just a petrol station and accessories retailer to a full offering that provides value for money and excellent service,” he added.
“The Centra structure allows great deals to be passed on to customers so that we can compete with a large range of major competitors that includes the first Salisbury’s store to have opened in Northern Ireland and not just one but three Tescos of various sizes.
“Too do this, we also work with local suppliers too and have both Barr’s Deli and Ferguson Meats as branded produce in three dedicated, open display, modern chillers in an important power aisle as well as our own Phoenix brand of sandwiches and wraps, all made up in-store at our deli.”
There’s also a huge focus on customer services, store standards as well as on local good causes too, with £4,000 raised for Action Cancer with an sponsored 24-hour cycle that took place on an exercise bike in the shop itself.
“That was great fun and all the staff took part,” Peter added, noting that The Phoenix employs 16 full time staff, 22 part time and two full and three part time employees in the post office.
It is a significant if modest employer, and certainly one who while looking back with pride over the first 40 years, has invested for the next generation too and is once again at the cutting edge of retailing.
“With a transaction speed of less than a second, new contactless technology is also being introduced in-store.
“It is the fastest payment method in the UK. It’s the way forward for payments of £20 or under and will enable me to serve more customers in less time – boosting trade in key rush times,” concluded the store proprietor.
Small wonder that The Phoenix continues its inexorable rise from its original, humble petrol station roots to a power to be reckoned with in Co Antrim grocery retailing.