With 13 years' experience in the retail industry, it's safe to say that Avril and Bryan Reed know what it takes to run a successful shop. Since opening their forecourt store, The Garage, in Ballygowan, County Down, it has been extended twice to accommodate the growing number of customers.

Its most recent refit in 2007 increased its size to 3,000sq ft and gave enough space to add the Roundabout Café, where people can take a break from the roads of Northern Ireland.

The store started out as a small kiosk within the forecourt, before becoming a 1,500sq ft c-store under the Mace fascia. Avril and Bryan decided to expand further and branch out on their own three years ago. "We decided to become independent," says Avril. "We didn't have a problem with Mace, but we had put so much into the store that we wanted it to be different from the competition.

"Before we made the decision we spoke to all of our full-time staff and asked them what they thought about moving away from Mace," she adds. "We explained to them that it would mean more work and added responsibility; that they may have to speak to sales reps and put more thought into what to put on the shelves, but ultimately it would make their jobs more interesting. They were very enthusiastic about it and it's worked very well so far."

All change

Although now part of the Nisa buying group, The Garage has its own unique style and red and grey colour scheme, designed by Avril and Bryan. "We had a total revamp of the store with our second extension; we wanted a new colour scheme for the store that we felt best suited our brand."

The Reeds' decision to enlarge the store led to a particularly efficient use of space, as the additional 1,500sq ft was found by building into a hill. This also meant that the café and office upstairs at the back of the store actually lead out onto a field, halfway up.

It may seem an extravagant move, but the shop's growth was necessary for the couple, who wanted to be the best store in an area that was seeing huge growth thanks to the recent property boom in Ireland.

"The village has really grown around us since we first opened," says Avril. "During the property boom, a lot of new houses were built in the area and people wanting to move away from Belfast came to live here. We found ourselves getting busier and busier and we had to grow to meet that demand."

Another demand they have adapted to meet is one for local produce. Even people who have recently moved to the area want to buy local produce, so Avril makes sure to use as many local stockists as possible. "All of our food is cooked in-store; none of it is bought in. For the people around here that's quite important. We also use local suppliers for our fresh fruit and vegetables."

To capitalise on the desire to buy locally, the Reeds started an in-store advertising campaign encouraging people not to drive miles for their shopping. "People around here like to support local businesses and don't want to travel far," she says. "That's why the 'Stay Local, Why Drive?' campaign has been very successful."

At the coal face

Even though Avril spends a lot of time behind the scenes, she loves getting out on to the shop floor and meeting customers. "I still enjoying jumping behind the till and serving. It's important I keep in touch with the people who shop here."

In fact, she believes that cultivating a personal relationship with customers is the key to a thriving retail business. She says: "We're on first-name terms with all our customers and if there's anything they would like stocked, we do our best to get it in for them.

"We keep the place clean and make it easy for customers to see all of the items on the shelves. We also try to keep queues to a minimum. It's all these little things that keep customers coming back to us."

Another method that the Reeds have of providing the best service for their customers is to check out other stores. "Every couple of months, my husband and I will drive to other stores to see how they do things," she adds. "You have to strive to be the best in order to do well in this industry, and we do that by offering a top-quality service to all of our customers."
Café culture
When Avril and Bryan extended their store, they decided to install a café to cater for people looking for a rest stop while travelling. It offers the usual hot beverages and snacks as well as more substantial meals to keep people going after a long journey.

So far the Roundabout Café has been very successful, with locals coming in for a snack as well as those wanting a pit-stop. Says Avril: "We have a hot food and drink counter on the shop floor, but that's for people on the go. The Roundabout Café offers people the chance to get out of their cars for a while and relax."
shop profile
The Garage

2 Saintfield Road, Ballygowan, Co Down

Floorspace: 3,000sq ft

Staff: 35

Turnover: £50,000 per week

Services: food to go, café, ATM, Payzone