Ulster Business

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SPAR NI at 60: A diamond in every community

This year marks 60 years of SPAR in Northern Ireland. The Dutch brand that has revolutionised community retailing around the world, with more than 13,300 stores in 48 countries. William Agnew officially launched the brand here in April 1961, alongside his son John. Here, John Agnew of the Henderson Group which continues to own the franchise in Northern Ireland, reflects on the impact of SPAR here, how its Dutch roots and ethos of collaborative working are still strong today, and what’s next for the brand


John Agnew

John Agnew

John Agnew

In the 1960s, the backdrop of Northern Ireland could be unrecognisable to many today, however there was one shop front that has become synonymous with every community.

When my father brought the SPAR brand to Northern Ireland, it was already established in six European countries, most recently in GB. I had completed a couple of years of management training with one of the Welsh SPAR wholesalers in the late 50s, and I returned home in 1957 to join the family business.

The business model of the SPAR Guild operated successfully on a regional, national and international level, and still does today. It supports the exchange of knowledge and information between retailers, as well as a structure to work together to grow the business. That is why SPAR is such a formidable force both globally and within our local communities; not only is our local SPAR Guild collaborating and driving the business forward, but we are learning and developing with our international retail colleagues too.

Hendersons established the Ulster SPAR Guild in the 60s, which was made up of 10 retailers from the 100 stores here. Peter Hurn, who many local retailers will know of, was one of the founding members and had a store in Ballyhackamore near the site of the current EUROSPAR on the Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast.

We had a sales team dedicated to bringing retailers on board through competitive pricing and promotions in exchange for SPAR trading and while such incentives might seem the natural way of things now, it was quite unique at that time. We were the only brand offering this to retailers.

Today we have independents with whole networks of SPAR stores such as the Kelly Group and The McBride Group, which run 22 stores between them; local retailers providing support to local suppliers and their community with employment and investment.

It was John Irish CBE, former retail director of SPAR in the 70s and 80s, who pioneered the ‘eight ‘til late’ concept, urging retailers to adopt longer hours to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace against the growth of the multiples.

The first company-owned SPAR opened in the late 70s. Developing our own stores was strategic as we needed to have our own, hands-on retail experience to be able to offer credible advice and advancements to our retailers. Henderson Retail now operates 59 SPAR stores in Northern Ireland.

Growth in the 80s saw us start to sell our own brand petrol, so those out on the road would also be able to pick up a snack, their lunch, or essentials for tonight’s tea. But it was as recent as 2005 that we established partnerships with our fuel partners BP, Maxol and Texaco. The 80s was also when my sons, Martin and Geoffrey, joined the business and they now sit as joint managing directors.

Post Good Friday Agreement and throughout the 90s and 00s, was when the growth of the SPAR brand really excelled. There are now 293 SPARs in Northern Ireland, the majority of which are operated by some of our most successful independent retailers. It has been an honour to see the brand grow to its full potential, and those retailers that have invested everything into it, to make their own successful family businesses.

Many of our retailers have built entire local networks under the SPAR brand and have been a real hub of their local communities. They trade independently but work with us through our wholesale business to gain access to promotions and our successful own-brand fresh and ambient ranges, a majority of which are sourced and developed with local farmers, growers and suppliers.

SPAR has also become synonymous with community outreach, and over the years, the brand has supported the NI arms of the NSPCC, Tearfund, British Heart Foundation and most recently, Marie Curie. Our independent retailers provide funding and support for their local food banks, football teams and community groups. This is an integral part of our business and has grown substantially since my father kept note of charitable support in a little black book, which I still have.

It is incredible to look back over the past 60 years and see the impact the brand has had on retailing in Northern Ireland. We know that strong investment and innovation has really driven that impact, but the success lies with the great people and entrepreneurs we have had working for the business. This has been our true success, and the backbone to the future of SPAR, especially following on from a year which has proven just how important community retailing is.

If 2020 was the year for challenge and learning, we hope 2021 will be the year for implementation of innovation from those learnings, alongside celebration of SPAR and the continued success of those who trade under it.

Ulster Business