Donna Mullan: Our Store

Christmas frenzy

Posted by: Donna Mullan Mon, 18 Dec 2017

The run-up to Christmas is always a hectic time and this year has certainly been no exception! This will be our first Christmas with the second store in Markethill and the pressure is starting to build. We’re running loads of in-store promotions which are helping to drive traffic, and the staff have been busy decorating.

Another element that is really helping to spread some festive cheer is our Christmas post box to Santa, an initiative which we are now running in both stores.

It started off as a small project but it has grown and grown and this year has been the most popular yet. It’s a wonderful idea and creates lots of excitement, but also lots of work for me as I personally reply to each and every child’s letter. It’s not a generic response either. If I commit to something I give it my all and so I take the time to craft a meaningful reply.

If truth be told some of them have actually been quite difficult for me this year as we have had an increase in letters from children simply asking for basic things such as food on the table instead of presents, which I’ve found quite heart-breaking.

We have always supported our local food banks but we plan to boost it a bit more this year. It’s a small thing for us, but hopefully it could make a big difference to some of our local families.
And in addition to all the festive pressures we have also been busy finalising plans for a complete facelift of Markethill.

We have been working hard with our architect to finalise the plans, which we hope to be able to submit to Building Control at the end of this month. We are very excited about what we have produced so far and if we receive approval we will have a state-of-the art convenience store which will boast a wide array of up-to-date services to make shopping convenient and enjoyable for our shoppers.

The plans have taken time to create and it’s at times challenging, but key is having the right team around us. If we had three or more stores we would be forced to employ managers, but so far we are doing it all with the help of an excellent group of employees.

Multiple challenges

Posted by: Donna Mullan Mon, 23 Oct 2017

We have now been operating our second site, in Markethill, County Armagh, for about six months. It’s taking up most of our time and there’s been a lot to get used to now that we have two stores.

Delegating to our staff has been one of the hardest aspects of taking on a second store. We have supervisors in both stores, who we talk to on a daily basis. We all get together to come up with ideas to improve things, we communicate all the time and things run smoothly, but we’re so used to being in one store and knowing what’s going on all the time. And it’s hard to let go of your first store; it’s where your heart is. In some ways it would be easier to have three or four stores, as you wouldn’t feel so attached to one in particular.

It really highlights how important it is to work with staff you trust. Most of our supervisors have been promoted by us, so they know the business. We identify staff members who are eager, and try to push them on and send them on training courses – the Spar Academy does a catalogue of courses.
It gives the employees more certificates and it’s better for us. The staff see that we’re investing in them, so they’ll work harder.

The new store is starting to make money, but it can be frustrating. It was in such poor condition when we bought it – it was dirty and there was no range, fresh products or services. One customer told me recently she was so happy that there was actually fuel now!

At least now we’ve got all the services – we’ve got a Barista coffee unit and a small hot food-to-go area – all the things people take for granted and what a convenience store is supposed to have. It’s also busy as we’re the only fuel site on the main road between Armagh and Newry, so there’s huge potential.

We’re working with building control at the moment to do a complete refit, which will hopefully happen in a year’s time. We plan to utilise all of the 2,800sq ft space – the retail area only covers 1,900sq ft at the moment – and introduce a small deli counter. But we know that the only way to expand and be successful is to crawl before you can run.

Multiple ambition

Posted by: Donna Mullan Mon, 11 Sep 2017

Over the years we have had conversations with various multi-site retailers about their journey from their first site to two, three, or more, and they all have said the same thing: “The second one is the hardest”.That would have put some people off, but in our case we found it intriguing!

There is no doubt that a second store has its challenges, but in our case we were about to embark on the most challenging few months of our retail career. We bought a second site in June 2016 in the busy village of Markethill and, although it was a fuel site and would be completely new to us, we were confident we could operate both.

The property was a repossession, but the tenant had 18 months left on the lease and we were happy to let the estate agent to continue with the rental arrangements to give us time to plan the redevelopment. However, the tenant had fallen behind on the rent and the landlord had fallen behind on other commitments, too, meaning that services such as Lottery, PayPoint and ATM had been cut off, there had been no fuel on site for eight weeks and other regulatory requirements had lapsed or not been re-applied for.

We knew that the safest and best answer to all of this was to close up and re-open again with what we had. With the help of family and friends we closed and secured the site and brought the entire store up to meet regulations. We then recruited new staff, trained them, and opened after 10 days!
We were very aware that our customers didn’t know us, or us them, and it was important to us that they felt reassured we were there to provide services that they had been doing without, and build up a relationship with them. Regular contact with customers is important – this is when you learn what they need and you try your best to provide for them to make their life a little easier. We hope to offer a self-service hot food service from October to complement our Barista coffee with a view to a full deli when we do the refit in spring/summer 2018.

A second store is a huge commitment, but has by no means put us off adding to our retail site portfolio. In fact, it has probably made us hungrier for more.

Becoming a multi-site retailer

Posted by: Donna Mullan Tue, 11 Jul 2017

In June 2016 we purchased a second site, a fuel site with 1,850sq ft retail space, in Markethill, County Armagh. Although this was a new venture and we were entering into unfamiliar territory, we didn’t allow it to deter us. The site was a bank repossession and had a sitting tenant with 18 months left on their lease. We were happy to allow the tenant to run their lease out to give us time to plan how we would put our stamp on the property. But, as we all know, some things never go to plan and in March 2017 the tenant contacted us with his surrender of lease and three weeks’ notice. It was unexpected and our plans that we had been working on for re-fitting were not completed, so we were left with no alternative but to open it as it was and try to trade.

The day we got the keys we had a store that had virtually no services – so the stress began! There had been no fuel on site for 10 weeks; we had to re-apply for lapsed services from PayPoint, lotto, petroleum licence, etc, etc. There were other issues, too, as the site had been running with no compliance regulations for fire, environmental health, pest control and so on, and even phone lines and broadband lines had to be installed.

So after 10 days spent cleaning, recruiting, rebranding, remerchandising over Easter, filling six builders’ skips and with no rest, we opened on 24 April as Spar.

We have always been advised by multi-site retailers that the transition from one site to two is the toughest… and they were right! It’s hard work and as a couple we are like ships in the night. Finding a work/life balance is difficult. The second site needs a lot of our attention and physical presence of one of us, but our first site is thriving and we need to be there to keep it evolving and improving. Some days it can be a juggling act, but you must remain focused on improving growth in both stores and very often a bit more delegating.

Our main focus in our new site is to try to build a relationship with our customers in a new town, continue to research their needs and provide them. Nobody said it would be easy - hard work never killed anyone - but if the second is the hardest we’ll be first in the queue for the third, fourth and fifth if the opportunity arises!

Onwards and upwards!

Posted by: Donna Mullan Thu, 20 Apr 2017

We opened our Spar store in May 2005. As we were first-time retailers and opened on a greenfield site, it was both challenging and rewarding. We’ve merely tried over the past 12 years to be the best we could for customers and staff, moving with the needs of the customers based on the feedback we receive.

We entered the Convenience Retail Awards with no expectations as we have never been ones to blow our own trumpet, so were surprised to have received a call to say we’d been shortlisted for our category (Best Independent Store). We attended the very lavish ceremony in London and all we hoped for was to enjoy the evening with good company as we were so chuffed to have been shortlisted.

When the winner was announced for the category award, we were shocked and proud at the same time – it was such a boost of confidence that ‘someone’ had given us recognition for the hard work we do. You can imagine how we felt when the final award was announced – Convenience Retailer of the Year. We were overwhelmed and even a bit emotional! It was an amazing feeling!

Since winning we have been inundated with good wishes and gifts from other retailers, suppliers and customers. It has given our customers more confidence in their shopping experience and our staff a great sense of security and pride in their employers, and we are very grateful for everyone’s support.

Our future holds lots of continued improvement with plans for more fresh participation, marketing our achievement and on 25 April we are also opening our second store, a fuel site. Onwards and upwards!

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