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'Our grocery store stands out, because we treat our customers as individuals'

By Rachel Martin

Published 20/10/2015

Paul Stewart is the great-grandson of the founder of JC Stewart
Paul Stewart is the great-grandson of the founder of JC Stewart

Creating a unique shopping experience has driven sales and customer loyalty at independent Co Londonderry grocer JC Stewart.

Since it was founded in 1894, the family-run Magherafelt supermarket has passed through four generations.

In the 1960s, the store was burned to the ground and in the 1980s, it survived a couple of bombs.

But the doors on Union Road never shut for long, and owner Paul Stewart, great-grandson of founder James Craig Stewart, takes great pride in how customers were always served again within days of a disaster.

In 1968, the shop was one of the first in Northern Ireland to introduce self-service. Instead of having a sales assistant stand behind a counter and hand over goods, shoppers would browse themselves and lift their own goods from the shelves.

Today, 100 members of staff are employed in the 14,000 sq ft store which contains an in-shop butchery and fruit and veg counter.

The family has always strived to stay at the forefront of change, but Mr Stewart (below), realised something needed to be done to help JC Stewart retain its foothold when supermarket giant Tesco opened less than a mile away.

He said: "We are very much the heart of the community and we have local values. We will use Northern Ireland meat and chicken, even when it costs us. We made a conscious decision to do that quite a while ago.

"We decided we have been brought up in a farming community and it felt right to support them. It can cost you, because other people can supply it cheaper, but we started that almost a decade ago and it's become very important to customers.

"Now, everyone is doing it. The difference is that we were doing it because of values - they have started doing it for marketing."

Mr Stewart also sought to bring a different shopping experience to customers.

Several years ago he travelled to Holland to learn what supermarkets in Europe were doing. Drawing from what he saw there, he realised that a focus on softer, wooden surfaces and ambient lighting helped to create a warmer, more welcoming atmosphere.

He said: "People always say they hate shopping, but we wanted to create a feel to our shop that really makes people want to come back.

"Our store stands out, because of how we deal with people as individuals. We deal with a lot of local suppliers, we have small ones that the supermarkets don't work with. There's a lady who bakes and she's got all the certifications, but she's out on a farm and she makes incredible food."

Staff at the store also make meals from on-site to recreate the home cooked dishes loved by customers.

The lasagne and cottage pie are customer favourites and retail at around £2 per portion.

Mr Stewart added: "We were doing gluten-free goods before they became popular. We engage with customers and take on board what they want. A packet of coffee is a packet of coffee and you can get it in 10 different shops, but we try to bring something different.

"Even the way it's displayed looks more like a market stall - like something you would see at St George's Market."

Belfast Telegraph

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