Henderson Group has opened its first new-build store since lockdown on a site with local grocery heritage, Retail Director Mark McCammond tells Alyson Magee.
Representing a return to some semblance of normality, Henderson Group has opened its first new-build store since the Covid-19 lockdown came into force in March.
A leasehold property built to order by the landlord on Carnmoney Hill, the Group has invested £500,000 in the fitout of its 95th company-owned store.
Work had commenced on the site in late 2019 but came to a halt in March, restarting in June.
While encountering a few delays around availability of materials and even getting the electricity connected, “it all came together, and we were delighted to open on the 10th of July”, says Mark McCammond, retail director at Henderson Group. “We thought that was quite an achievement in terms of all the parties that pulled together to help us so soon after the peak of Covid-19.
“We had about six weeks really to get the internal fitout completed, which was quite tight, but we were able to do that and have had a really warm reception from customers who saw it emerging.”
The store design had to be adapted to incorporate new safety protocols around Covid-19. “As we had to down tools for a period of time, it was a challenge to reflect what was happening and add some extra measures in,” he says. “We were able to install a one-way system in the store effectively.
“We reset our signage and messaging and were able to implement really good processes in terms of controlling checkouts.
“There are screens at the butchery counters and checkouts, but we also took the decision to put self-serve checkouts in because during Covid-19 they have been very popular. Cash has become a yuck factor, and people just want to tap and go. About 30% of all store transactions have been going through self-checkouts so far.”
Marketing ahead of the opening was limited to roadside messaging, bus shelters and leaflets in the catchment area. “Normally we would go full blast with a lot of marketing for the launch of a new store,” says McCammond, “but during Covid-19, you’re trying not to force people onto a site. You’re trying to get people to be responsible.”
SPAR Carnmoney Hill may be a new build, but the site of the shop boasts local grocery heritage. Around 100 years ago, a store owned by Israel Abernethy existed on the site, and his descendant of the same name still lives in an abutting residence. Old photographs of the original store are displayed in the entranceway of the new shop.
More recently, one of the adjoining units was formerly a SPAR store in which John Wilson first began making Mauds before closing the shop to focus his efforts on the burgeoning ice-cream brand.
“It was great to put a Mauds counter back into SPAR Carnmoney Hill because it’s a lovely little bit of history that all the locals know about,” says McCammond, who himself hails from the village.
SPAR Carnmoney Hill currently employs 21 staff members, including a few who have transferred from other stores but mainly new additions. Andrew McIleese is store manager.
With many locals out of work during the pandemic, recruitment of retail staff has never been easier, says McCammond. “There’s three or four other stores in the area that we’ve been able to disperse staff among to get trained up on our policy systems, but also all the Covid-19 procedures as well.”
Beyond environmentally friendly features standard across the Henderson Group portfolio, such as LED lighting and energy-efficient refrigeration, the Carnmoney Hill shop features innovative eco blade technology.
Diverting coolant from aisles back into cabinets, the technology not only uses energy for refrigeration more efficiently but maintains a more stable temperature in aisles for shoppers.
LOCAL FOOD FOCUS
A popular feature of the new store has been an Irvine’s Chop Shop counter. “It’s good to be partnering with somebody who is truly a local player, and they’ve brought something to the store we are delighted to be a part of,” says McCammond. “That’s something we have done with a lot of stores.”
The shop also features Barista Bar coffee and SPAR bakery counters. While around 75% of produce sold in Group stores would typically be sourced from the island of Ireland, McCammond reckons it would be closer to 80% at SPAR Carnmoney Hill.
“People recognise we’re a big supporter of local produce and that’s probably going to become more important in the current context of local trade and supporting local jobs on this island,” he says. “People want to see well-loved local firms prosper. When there’s so much doom and gloom about small companies going out of business, we want to protect these unique, heritage-rich local firms that bring something different rather than mass-produced food.”
One such investment by Henderson Group has been The Chef, its range of ready meals created at a production facility in Randalstown under the creative lead of Carl Johannesson and selling well in the new shop.
“These are true recipes using all local ingredients, and fantastic quality with a lot of provenance,” says McCammond. “We’re really proud of these products, which are unique to SPAR- and EUROSPAR-branded stores and doing really well.”
The Chef range taps into an area of high demand. “We know what’s important for our customers is being able to find something for tonight’s tea at short notice; maybe at 3pm in the day,” he says. “We’re right next to a primary school so hopefully, when the schools open, we’ll have mums and dads coming out with kids and looking to buy tonight’s tea.
“We’ve got not just the centrepiece, but all the trimmings and Sunday lunch as well. That’s really important and I think that particular range will feature heavily in shopping baskets because it saves a lot of time.”
And while Carnmoney Hill already features plentiful on-street parking, the new store offers the added benefit of around 20 parking sites and a range of trolley options for those looking for more than a basket shop.
“We’ve seen probably half our customers so far using trolleys which is good because the average customer spend is very encouraging on this site,” says McCammond. “It tells me it’s appealing to people who aren’t just high convenience customers buying tobacco, news and confectionary but thinking of meals as well.”
While average basket spend would sit around £5-£6 for most convenience stores, at Carnmoney Hill it has been closer to £10.
For the Group, the main focus throughout the pandemic has been safely feeding the nation across its 460 SPAR, EUROSPAR and ViVO stores. Over £1m has been invested in protective measures and communications for retailers and shoppers since March.
“We haven’t really been talking about sales, we’ve been talking about how to keep our people safe,” says McCammond. “The regime we’ve put in has been second to none, and we’re constantly trying to think of ways to build on our Covid-19 credentials.”
A further goal is “to keep supporting the economy by building and expanding stores and providing job opportunities,” he says. “We’re still actively looking for new sites.”
The Group hopes to reach 100 company-owned stores by the end of the year, with two – EUROSPAR Millisle in Co Down and ViVOXTRA Newry Road in Banbridge – already at advanced stages of construction.