NISA Extra Rathfriland


Co Down husband and wife team Tom and Ann McAvoy have reached another milestone, opening the latest phase of their grocery retailing business in Rathfriland, as Brian McCalden reports.

Sitting in his suite of offices upstairs from his new 15,000-square-foot NISA Extra store, Tom McAvoy has barely time to reflect on the last year for the business as his multi-million pound investment sees him at work for up to 80 hours weekly.

Although just officially opened at the beginning of November – appropriately undertaken by another local man, the entertainer and mind reader David Meade – the project was a long time in the planning.

Fellow Rathhfriland native Tom admits to some trepidation, as the initial work was done at the height of the current recession. Some might have thought his scheme to grow the original petrol forecourt (still across the road) from the original 1,800 to a 5,000-square-foot convenience store on the new site as crazy enough, but Tom and Ann’s target was much higher.

The couple now employ 150 full- and part-time staff on a much-expanded site, covering the 15,000 square foot of retailing and the same area again upstairs as offices, stores and an ever-growing home food manufacturing facility.

The new store range is extensive, as it now offers Maxol fuel pumps, ATM machines, a hot and cold food deli counter, a wide range of groceries, off licence, outside catering, Lottery ticket sales, Paypoint and flowers and plants but also now fills the chilled and bakery shelves and the deli and food-to-go section with vast amounts of own label products.

“We now manufacture 25% of all our products right here on the premises with staff at work from 4am daily, such is the demand,” says Tom. “The deli now serves a range of fresh hot and cold foods and a very broad range of ready meals alongside own-label cakes, pastries and a complete range of home baked own-label breads.

“We are also tackling the catering sector and are even supplying a full take-away, three-course Christmas dinner for less than £15 and will of course be supplying turkeys from our extensive butchery counter.”

Reaching the latest milestone in development at Rathfriland’s Milestone NISA was a journey in itself, and saw Tom and Ann acquire land opposite the original forecourt, starting with the opening of the initial convenience store and moving away from the Spar brand that he had successfully operated for 12 years.

“Conveniently located on Newry Street Rathfriland, we are just a short drive from Newry, Banbridge and surrounding towns like Mayobridge, Rostrevor and Annaclone,” he says, adding that it soon got to the point where they were massively overtrading and had to expand.

Property that had initially been well outside their budget had been marked down in the recessionary climate, and he was soon acquiring further adjacent buildings to fuel the expansion.

“Since our beginning, the business has quickly expanded into more than just a convenience store and petrol station. We now offer a complete shopping experience, with the likes of the deli counter, a bakery with products all made in store each day and a butchery stocking local meat products making a big difference,” says Ann. “We also provide outside catering and off-sales stocked with beverages, spirits and wines from all around the world and that brings in considerable business too.

“The official opening event was at the start of November and, as Tom said, it was hosted by local celebrity David Meade along with Pat Leneghan from NISA and we even had Kevin McAllister from Q Radio broadcasting live during the day, such was the interest locally.

“Everyone was impressed by the store. Our fresh fruit and veg display is covered by stainless steel pipes that emit a fine mist spray to keep the ‘Pink Ladies’ and other produce cool and tasty which was a major talking point and also that the whole store is laid out to allow both ease of access and the very latest, modern displays.”

Retail Interior Designers Edge Fit Design, from Lisburn – which was short-listed for the Food and Supermarket Design of the Year award at a London ceremony for their work in the store – had a leading role.

Bryan Heaney, who worked with his fellow director Maurice Beckett on the project, noted that it was a changing concept which evolved over some time.

“Over two years or more, we saw various changes being incorporated into our plans for The Milestone, as we were putting a lot of emphasis on the flow of the shop itself and were determined to get it right,” he says. “The brief meant that we had to incorporate two initial customer options, to go straight to the fruit, veg and grocery or choose to just pick up convenience shopping and I think we were successful in that.”

It works too as Tom is pleased to say that his average customer spend is up by in excess of £5 since opening. He puts a lot of emphasis on continuing development, planning a new in-store cafe facility and additional pumps at the forecourt opposite which he has now re-signed to Maxol adding that, with the only forecourt in town, fuel sales are good but have scope to grow more. Overall, the business projections, backed by Danske Bank are proving to be better than target.

“We are now trading at the level we projected for this time in 2015, so that’s a very good indicator that the long hours are paying off and despite the initial worries over the recession, we are in a good trading position,” says Tom.

“NISA has been great too as they allow us to retain our individuality – by creating a quarter of stock ourselves for example – yet maintaining three fresh, three ambient and three frozen deliveries every week.”
“That way we can compete with the three big Tesco supermarkets within 10 miles of the store, supplying products under their label as well as big brands on very good terms indeed, with competitive prices very obvious in the new off sales for example.”

Promotions are ongoing too with a Christmas Fair in hand during December and the customer competition ‘Mini @ the Milestone’ whereby one lucky winner will have the opportunity to drive off in a new Mini Car before Christmas, when “David Meade will return to pick out the lucky winner,” says Tom.

“Since our beginning, the business has quickly expanded into more than just a convenience store and petrol station,” he says. “It’s a complete shopping experience now.”

Unusually too, the store is also in a position to offer specialised training: “In the near future we intend to incorporate training in conjunction with Southern Regional College in retail and food hygiene courses,” he says. “We now have the facilities and expertise to carry out these programmes on site.”

The Co Down couple has indeed reached a major milestone in business development, but it seems the entrepreneurs are only getting started with the future being bright and positive for this rural ‘hyper-convenience store’.

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