Lidl boss: 'We'll be growing as long as we offer people what they want'
Lidl boss JP Scally tells Samantha McCaughren about a new focus on convenience food and why it hasn't jumped on the online bandwagon
German discount grocer Lidl may have started off here 19 years ago with sparse stores stacking strange-looking goods in boxes and crates, but it has evolved significantly since then.
All Ireland boss JP Scally is responsible for 155 stores, including 38 here. And Northern Ireland man Conor Boyle is employed as the director of Lidl in Northern Ireland.
From Tyrrellspass in Co Westmeath, Mr Scally is from a farming family and a career in farming was an option for him growing up. However, he decided to study industrial engineering in NUI Galway.
He saw himself working in manufacturing, but another opportunity caught his eye.
"I was just finishing college in 2003 and I was starting to look at what jobs were out there, and I came across an advert for a construction manager with Lidl," he says.
"Although it wasn't exactly my type of engineering I would have touched on civil engineering as well as part of my degree. I'd heard a little bit about this new retailer that was entering the country so applied for it and got the job," he says.
Initially, the role was focused on construction specification for new stores.
"But I actually ended up only doing that for a matter of weeks. Because the company was so new at the time, everyone was responsible for lots of different things so I got quite quickly moved into logistics," he says.
He moved up the ranks before going to work in Lidl France in 2012 as operations director - a board role.
In 2015 the opportunity came to take up the top job in Ireland at the age of 32.
"It's the dream job, I suppose, being managing director of the operation in your own country, your home country," he says.
Much has often been made of his relative youth, but Mr Scally says the group focuses on ability and potential over age.
He is overseeing continued expansion by the group. The group now has 155 stores and Mr Scally believes that will level off at around 200 shops, although declines to say how soon that might be.
"It will take a number of years to get to that target," he says.
Mr Scally is also responsible for 38 stores in Northern Ireland, the first of which opened in 1999.
Kantar's research on the grocery market puts Lidl's share of the market in Northern Ireland at 5.6%.
Mr Scally says: "Market share is not a figure that we're obsessed with. I think if we continue to offer customers what they want, we will continue to grow the business."
Fellow German discounter Aldi remains in close competition in the Republic though it does not operate in Northern Ireland. But Mr Scally says he spends little time thinking about competitors.
Over the course of the recession and recovery, shopping habits have changed. Mr Scally says that the group's shoppers are spending more per visit.
Lidl is not pursuing a digital strategy, despite the fact that this is a massive international trend.
"We have to also bear in mind that online is still less than 2% of the Irish food market," he says. "So although people have switched to online very much, be it for holidays or for clothes shopping in particular, food is different and I think that won't change in the foreseeable future.
"People want to see the quality of the fresh fruit and veg that they're buying, they want to pick up their piece of meat and see it before they put it in their trolley and that's something that online shopping doesn't offer, obviously.
"So I don't believe that we're going to switch to a larger promotion of online in the foreseeable future."
Lidl is experimenting with selling non-food items online in some countries.
"That potentially is an option for us into the future as well. But we see an option to grow our bricks and mortar business more significantly than online certainly for the years to come," he adds.
One trend that Mr Scally is focusing on is the shift to convenience and healthy eating.
"We've always had some amount of convenience in the range, however, we have just expanded it more significantly over the last number of months, adding more and more lines.
"I suppose what we are noticing the trend in convenience is towards healthy convenience so it's particularly salads. Proteins and spiralised veg, for example, all of that kind of stuff is becoming more and more on trend, even protein bars etc. So that's where our focus is on."