Spar, Braid River
Brian MCCalden reports on a Co Antrim forecourt grocery facility that grounds its long-established business on convenience , quality of produce and service, and the offer of real value for money
Chris and Isobel Warwick’s established Maxol forecourt and SPAR has a broad customer demographic. “Our trade is wide ranging with customers from many sectors and all backgrounds, as well as coming from all geographical areas,” says Chris Warwick.
With 24-hour opening, the shop and forecourt attracts not only local trade but also, being in the middle of the market town of Ballymena and on the very busy A26 main route, considerable passing trade as well. “While the 1,800-square-foot store doesn’t get much in the way of ‘trolley shopping’, the average ‘basket shop’ is around £4.20 and makes up for that in volume,” he says. “There’s plenty of opposition to contend with too, so we need to keep that volume rising.
“There’s a large Tesco with its branded forecourt, Sainsbury’s with its own forecourt and several local symbol groups, as well as Applegreen’s new fuel sites such as the one opening this summer at Tannaghmore.” The shop therefore trades on its high levels of service including at its extremely busy hot food counter, where people on the go can get food to go fast, and all at very reasonable prices.
“The hot food service rarely slackens from around 7am until after lunchtime, which is boosted by deals such as the long-standing offer of seven Ulster Fry items for just £1.99,” says Isobel, Chris’s business partner and wife. It also offers all the convenience of an established grocery store, as well as an ATM, four fuel islands (20 nozzles) and parking for around 20 vehicles too, as well as a car wash. “The cash machine is really key to our trade, especially given our easy parking/stopping access just off this very busy arterial route,” says Chris. “This is all the more important because of our local traffic regulations on parking which are rigorously enforced by wardens.
“Thankfully, few just stop for fuel or cash from the ATM. As a result, our best-selling products are the ‘staple’ two-litre milk, as well as the extremely successful Barista coffee machine, the soft drinks, confectionery and the Deli, so while there’s no room – or demand – for trolley shopping, this is more than balanced by volume in basket trade.” The shop and forecourt has evolved from the two original petrol stations in the busy town – Ballymena Service Station and Seven Towers Service Station established by the husband and wife team over two decades ago.Braid River Service Station was a branded ESSO site, but was later taken over by Maxol, and when the opportunity presented itself just over 10 years ago to take on the current site, we didn’t hesitate,” says Chris. Much has changed in the last 21 years: “Back then a forecourt was just fuel and a very few basic grocery items, such as bread, milk and soft drinks as well as far more in the way of car accessories,” he says. “Now, with ongoing and very professional support from our long-term wholesaler, the Henderson Group, we are able to be very competitive with pricing, even in the face of the nearby multiples.“So, for now and into the future, it’s Maxol for fuel supplies, the associated point-of sale and advertising – as well as staff training for the rapid advances in forecourt developments and Henderson for the shop – its point-of sale and regular local and national advertising support – and training in the many and varied aspects of food retailing.“Really, I have come to depend on their proven expertise and really value their guidance as the business develops.” The couple also relies heavily on their full and part-time staff, especially the long-serving managers Jackie Henry and Jenni Waide who, between them, managed the original two garages that began the Ballymena business, all those years earlier.
On products, while many are sourced locally, SPAR’s own-brand label enjoy local is popular in prepared meals for the deli (95%) and the likes of SPAR-branded butchery, fresh produce and of course the many and varied offers on both SPAR products and national brands.“Value for money is even more important these days,” he says. “As purse-strings tighten, it’s increasingly important for customers that the shop offers low prices, as well as convenience.”
Looking ahead to the start of the festive season, he says: “Henderson offers a very lucrative 12 Weeks to Christmas promotion that runs right up to the end of December with many weekly offers coming on-stream. “Last year, we even ‘saved a few relationships’ with last minute purchases of festive boxes of chocolates as gifts. However, as these were priced at, or just below, the same brand on sale in the likes of Tesco – that’s ‘no joke’ for our bottom line. “That said, preparations seem to get earlier every year with the Christmas promotion beginning in early October this time.
“But given the great response last year – I say, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ – as the festive season is our busiest time and obviously it’s vital for profitability.”
Otherwise, recent additions to facilities include a general refit as well as the installation of extra chillers for fresh and chilled food to go. Busy times are in the early morning and late at night when everywhere else is either closed or less accessible. The forecourt also undertakes considerable community support such as a 24-hour access cardiac defibrillator being installed on site after the 20 staff raised £1,800 for the project by way of an abseil, static cycle, darts night and quiz night – including many ‘miles’ covered in the saddle by Isobel Warwick herself.
More recent charity fund-raising saw Chris himself endure huge disruption on account of late summer industrial action to finally reach France to do an entirely ‘non static’ cycle ride to the summit of Mont Ventoux with Ballymena Road Club. “We cycled 150 km, took on an 8,200-foot ascent, all to help raise £15,000 for Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, which given the strike disruption, turned out to be an endurance test in more ways than one.” Looking ahead, Chris first looks back: “When we started out with our two service stations in Ballymena, we couldn’t have imagined the changes ahead.
“Back then, no one would have dreamed that selling bottled water would be a success in conservative Northern Ireland for example – and how that has changed. When did the average customer last pay for shopping with a cheque, for example? A long time ago I suspect. “Looking at recent new technology, such as the advent of customer contactless payments and Maxol’s ‘Tru rating’ project, providing us with superb and very accurate customer feedback, the future is an unknown.
“And that’s only part of it. Our two scanning tills automatically link with our stocktaking and ordering – a facility we take for granted now – but one that would have been science fiction 20 years ago.
“So, what’s ahead; who knows? We are ready for it though and, with the professional support of both Brian Donaldson’s team at Maxol and the Henderson Group, we are looking to
a positive future – with unknown, but positive developments along the way.”Chris Warwick