Menarys boosted ahead of Christmas rush by sound advice from its customers
Focus groups, more brands and a new personal shopping service have all helped retail chain Menarys claw back some of its hold on the high street.
The business, which was founded in 1923 by Cookstown draper Joseph Alexander, had suffered large losses over the last few years.
Just three months ago, the chain posted losses of almost £911,000 for the year ending January 2015, a slight reduction on the £1.1m loss made the year before.
The chain runs 17 stores across Northern Ireland in towns from Bangor to Strabane. It also has three stores in the Republic of Ireland. In total it employs around 360 people.
In some towns, such as Coleraine, Cookstown and Omagh, there is a Menarys and a sister Tempest store specialising in fashion.
Last year the company entered a company voluntary arrangement with creditors, a procedure used by companies which are under financial pressure.
However, the company said that changes on the shop floor have meant the firm is now back in profit and ready to take on the Christmas rush.
This year like-for-like sales increased by 1% on the same period last year, a small but reassuring uplift.
Company director Stephen McCammon - who is the great-nephew of Joseph Alexander - said listening to what customers wanted was key to getting his company back on track.
The store has a long history of canvassing customers for their views - and even the Menarys name is the result of a customer survey.
In the 1970s, Mr McCammon's father bought over a store in Lisburn called Menary Brothers. He asked people on the street near the chain's Newtownards store whether they had heard of Alexanders or Menarys.
"The overwhelming majority had heard of Menarys," Mr McCammon said. "And so the decision was made to re-brand all the stores under the Menarys name."
Focus groups brought together groups of reward card customers in six stores who were asked to give their opinions on the chain.
At the sessions, customer service was rated very highly with staff members praised for their friendliness and willingness to spend time one-to-one helping shoppers, but store layout and displays were two of the areas where customers felt improvement could be made.
As a result, the chain focused on making efficiencies in store, giving positive feedback to employees through its newsletter and making promotions clearer. Store managers will also be given more power to make changes where they see fit to allow them to react more readily to area-specific needs.
As part of the changes stores will offer a specialist personal shopping service.
Mr McCammon said: "We already offer great customer service with staff who will spend time helping shoppers, but some people need extra help putting things together or are time poor.
"It's a way of making people aware of the service we offer. If they are looking for something for a special occasion we can set aside suitable items in advance."
Directors are also focusing on reaching a younger demographic with more brand names. Currently, the company has 35 concession brands.
Bob and Berts cafes and Benefit make-up counters were recent additions to the list of brands, which already included Top Shop, Oasis, Mint Velvet, Phase Eight, Clinique, Wallis, Miss Selfridge and Warehouse.
However, online retailing is an area where it looks unlikely the business will make inroads.
Mr McCammon said that he had not seen demand from customers for the chain to open a virtual store.
"I believe in local and so do our customers. The vast majority of our customers tell us they will buy from local shops where they can," he added.