Belfast Telegraph

Balmoral show: How Crawfords has moved on from days of nails and bread

In the run-up to next month’s Balmoral Show, Lisa Smyth talks to two retailers based in rural areas about how they strive to stay fresh and relevant as they compete with the big supermarkets

Crawfords supermarket started out as a small grocery and hardware shop more than a century ago. Established in 1900, the family-run supermarket has passed down through four generations and now employs 140 staff serving the people of Maghera and beyond.

It is a far cry from the shop that provided a counter service and sold basics like nails, bread and flour.

It now has an on-site butchers and bakery, Post Office, off-licence, toy department, soft play area for kids, and even manufactures and sells 250 separate pre-packed meals and dishes, allowing it to compete with multi-national supermarket chains.

Jonathan Crawford, managing partner, said: "My grandfather's uncle started it up in 1900 and it was more or less a small corner shop.

"Back in those days, Maghera was a small market town and these kinds of shops were very common.

"My grandfather bought the shop from his uncle when his children didn't want it, and then it passed down to my dad.

"My grandfather had a heart attack and my dad had to come back from Greenmount College to run the shop and he never left."

Jonathan (40) resisted the expectation that he would work in the supermarket as soon as he finished his GCSEs.

Instead, he opted to remain at school and sit his A-levels before embarking on a business degree course at the University of Ulster.

As part of his studies, he spent his placement year working for Tesco before returning to the family business.

"My time at Tesco helped me to see the standards that we should be trying to achieve in order to make us as competitive as possible, and we put in place a 10-year plan," he explained.

Since then, Jonathan has worked hard to modernise and expand Crawfords.

"In 2001, we took the shop from 6,000 sq ft to 15,000 sq ft," he continued.

"This allowed us to put in an off-licence, improved coffee shop and a Post Office which offers financial services.

"In 2011, we added another 10,000 sq ft so we were able to open a scratch bakery. We now have six bakers who come in at four in the morning and bake fresh bread every day.

"In 2003, we added a butcher's department, which was a bit of a leap of faith because I didn't know very much about it, so we employed a butcher and worked through it.

"It's going really well and it's a core part of the business. We have four butchers employed there and we use all local meat.

"We buy all our fruit and veg from local markets, and again we have a lorry going out at 4am every day.

"In the last 10 years, our focus has really been on fresh produce as the multi-nationals can't do that as well."

According to Jonathan, having a butcher and bakery on-site allows them to respond to customers' demands much more quickly than multiples like Tesco or Sainsbury's.

Changes in the weather, such as a sunny weekend, are crucial to retailers and the on-site facilities mean staff at Crawfords are able to quickly increase the number of bakery and meat products they manufacture, to cater for customer demand for barbecue food.

"We have also developed a range of ready meals that we cook here as well," continued Jonathan.

"We have four chefs working in the kitchens, blast-chilling them down, pre-packing and selling in the supermarket.

"We do all sorts, from spaghetti bolognese, salmon and dill on a bed of noodles, chicken enchiladas, salads, sandwiches.

"Again, we can respond to the consumer quickly because we have all the ingredients here in store.

"The bigger supermarkets have to order their products in and wait for them to be distributed whereas we create them all in the store."

Another benefit of producing the meals themselves is that it allows them to increase their profit margin while remaining competitive.

Of course, expansion like this comes at a price and Jonathan had to secure a substantial loan from the bank when he was a fresh-faced graduate.

"I was just 23 when that happened," he recalled.

"Over the years, I have been very keen to add new departments and create new reasons for customers to visit us.

"My parents were very supportive and I don't think I was that worried, I certainly would be more worried about doing something like that now.

"I think I was very much of the mindset that if it all worked out well, I'd pay it off in a short time and if it didn't work out so well it would take longer to pay off.

"I thought I was young and I had plenty to time to pay it off.

"My dad and I don't always agree but we have other businesses and he went off and developed the farm and let me get on with the supermarket."

Jonathan said getting the right team has been crucial and a lifetime working in the local community has been important in doing this.

Crawfords offers free home delivery and set up its Making a Difference Locally charity, working with suppliers to offer sponsorship to local events and charities.

Communication and interaction with the customer is also important, and Jonathan said they rely upon social media to achieve this. However, he has resisted the urge to increase the business's online presence.

"We had some students from the University of Ulster survey our customers about this and they said that they like coming in to the shop, they like seeing what they are buying, and that is important to us," he continued.

He added: "The advice I would give to anyone starting out in business is you need absolute belief in your product and you should try to move faster than those around you."

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