Acquiring a new shop wasn’t part of the plan when meeting with Circle K about another site, but the busy Larne Port forecourt was too good an opportunity to pass up, owner Raymond Lusty tells Alyson Magee
A one-size-fits-all approach has certainly not been adopted by the Lusty family when opening their second Centra shop in Larne.
Whereas their first store in the town, Lusty’s Centra Larne on Old Glenarm Road, is noted for its award-winning off licence and strong grocery offer, Lusty’s Centra Larne Port is all about fuel and high convenience.
Ideally situated in the Port of Larne Business Park to catch lorry drivers arriving or departing from the harbour, the shop is also proving a draw among regular motorists appreciating its spacious forecourt and ample parking.
The site was taken over by father-and-son Richard and Raymond Lusty in April, underwent a £150,000 refurbishment, and officially reopened in June.
Partners in Richwell Trading, their family retail business started out with Centra O’Neill Road in Newtownabbey, which has since been sold on.
“My dad has been a Centra retailer since they came into Northern Ireland,” says Raymond, “and he was sort of retiring so he sold that shop, but then this opportunity came along.”
Looking for a new fuel partner for Old Glenarm Road, Raymond met with Circle K, which brought to his attention an opportunity to acquire the site. The 1,500-square-foot Larne Port shop, previously a SPAR, was Circle K’s only company-owned store in Northern Ireland.
“We didn’t really go looking for it,” says Raymond, “but an opportunity came to align with Circle K on our other site and at the same time to buy this place.
“We purchased it off Circle K, converted it to a Centra and have done a massive refurbishment. For the size of the store, it was a significant investment and included a new deli, seating, flooring and refrigeration.
“The old store had a very dated deli that hadn’t been used in five or six years and was just cordoned off, so we were able to come in and change the layout.”
“We’re trading a few months now and it’s all been very positive,” he says. “It’s completely different to our other site. It’s not a big grocery spend, it’s high convenience and the biggest attraction is the HGVs.
“It’s easy access for them so there’s a massive fuel volume here and, on the back of that, we try to bring them into the deli. The Frank & Honest coffee machine is a big hit, and the convenience sector – the grab and go and the impulse - all works very well.
“Our big thing in Centra stores is the chicken fillet baguette, a hot filled roll, and our hot food is definitely the most popular with our customers. Our deli is open until 2.30pm, and then we have a full prepacked range for the afternoon and evening.
“We’re beside Asda in the town so we’re never going to be a destination for grocery, but we still pick up some traders around here who finish work and come and grab milk and bits for their dinner. We’re still trying to find our feet and what is the correct range.
“Nowadays you have to be active on social media, and we do a lot of competitions and stuff like that on Facebook and Instagram just to try and get people aware of what we’re doing here. We’re trying to grow it every week.”
Standard services on offer include Lotto, PayPoint, E top-ups and fuel cards while, with lorry drivers and motorists as key customers, Lusty’s Centra Larne Port features a well-stocked bay of car accessories.
With the shop’s new focus on its deli offer, Raymond has doubled staff numbers to 16 since taking over while an additional 45 staff members at the Old Glenarm Road site can step in to provide cover as needed.
“Our other shop is only a mile and a half away,” he says, “and it has the same set up, menu and till system. When it was only the eight staff in here, to get holiday hours covered was very difficult so it’s a good luxury to have.”
While there was no shortage of shop workers during the lockdown with students at home, Raymond says many did disappear with the return to university campuses this autumn. However, getting new staff on board has not really been a problem, he says, with new positions advertised to its strong Facebook following.
“We have a lot of staff in our other store who have been there maybe 10-plus years and Mark Hastings, our manager at Larne Port, has been here a long time,” says Raymond.
“When we became involved in the business, he was assistant manager and was promoted to manager and is doing an excellent job. We have a great assistant manager, Georgia, a deli manager and supervisors. We have a good structure in place.”
Previously a 24-hour site, shop hours had been reduced to 7am-10pm during the lockdowns before Raymond took over. He is now opening at 6.30am and may trial 24-hour services again next year.
In the meantime, an old carwash facility has been knocked down to make way for a new 24-hour HGV pump accepting fuel cards.
“It’s called a skid unit, which is basically a big tanker offer 24-hour fuel,” he says. “When coronavirus came in, the owner Circle K had stopped the nightshift because the boats weren’t at capacity. With our hours now, there’s two boats that go during the night that we miss and then two during the day so this will capture the fuel side of things.
“The fuel volume here would be about four times that of the other shop. The ease of access to the fuel pumps is a big draw, especially for families.”
With the Old Glenarm Road shop among the busiest in Musgrave NI’s Centra franchise, and the site itself compact, the spacious forecourt at Larne Port is a big draw for motorists.
“It's a long-term project,” says Raymond. “We will continue developing Larne Port, investing in new fuel pumps, redesigning the layout and maybe relocating the carwash.
“There’s an electric charging unit which has been here for a few years, and we’re thinking of maybe getting more in partnership with NIE. There are more and more electric cars on the road now, so we’ll see where that takes us over the next few years.”
As the new shop finds its feet, Raymond plans to look at building on the awards success achieved by Old Glenarm Road store, which was most notably named Best Off-Licence in the UK at the Retail Industry Awards in 2018.
“We’re hopefully going to push this store and at least go in for some Musgrave awards this year,” he says. “We’ll just focus on building up what we’ve got here.”
And is the family’s lust for retail likely to include further acquisitions? Right now, Raymond is busy with his two-year-old daughter and another baby due at time of writing. “But my plans might be, in the future, to get a third store or build on the success of our off licence.”