Like all good retailers, Spar Knocklynn manager Celine Molloy loves to make a fuss of her customers. But it doesn’t stop once they step outside the store. In fact, for some customers it starts even before they enter.

“We’ll do anything to help our customers,” says Celine. “One of our regular ladies is sometimes too unwell to walk around the store, so she pulls up her car, beeps the horn, and a member of staff goes and gets her shopping for her,” says Celine.

“When we had bad snow earlier in the year she couldn’t get out of the house at all, and then to add to her problems her boiler broke down. We made sure she got her shopping and our staff brought her a heater so she could keep warm.”

And that’s not the only kind deed Spar Knocklynn in Coleraine has done for its customers. “If anyone in the local area passes away, then we send a package of tea and sugar to the relatives as they’ll have lots of people visiting their home to pay their condolences,” she explains.

In fact, Celine herself has even gone to visit customers when they are unwell. “One of our elderly customers was taken ill and had to go to hospital. So I went to visit him to wish him well and I took a card from our store.”

Although her visit was far beyond the call of duty, it still reflected well on the store. “I had to take a little time away from the shop, but he was really pleased that we came and he told everyone about our visit, so we were paid back tenfold in terms of good publicity.”

It’s not just Celine who goes out of her way for customers it’s a team effort. Store assistant Lorna McLaughlin was crowned Sales Assistant of the Year at Convenience Store’s 2008 Sales Assistant Awards. “We knew that we were good at customer care, but when Lorna won the sales assistant award we were delighted,” says Celine. “We take awards very seriously.”

And that’s not just her competitive spirit talking there are key strategic reasons why awards mean a lot to the store. “Winning awards means that you become more high-profile, which has meant that we bring in more money, and the company is willing to invest more in us,” explains Celine. The store is in the process of being revamped as it has just had its status upgraded from a Vivo to a Spar by owner Henderson Group. “To have a total refit is amazing it’s great that the company has given us this kind of recognition,” beams Celine.

Having worked at Dunnes department store for 10 years previously, and another couple of years at Musgrave, Celine believes she is very much grounded at Henderson’s. “I managed the fresh foods department at Dunnes, but it got to the stage where I knew all the customers and even what they were going to buy and there was no challenge in it anymore.

“Then, at Musgrave, you only got to speak to a few people a day, rather than hundreds of customers, and I missed the interaction.”

At Henderson’s it was a different story, though. “When you come to a company like this where the managing director rings you up personally just to see how you’re getting on, or to congratulate you on good sales, it really makes you feel important and valued,” says Celine. “There are big official visits from the top, but also if a manager is just on a day out with his kids, he’ll still nip in and say hi. It’s a family owned company and they really look after the staff.”

Determined to echo the example of her seniors, Celine puts her all into looking after her team. The store recently took part in Investors In People where 13 members of staff were interviewed by the Department for Employment and Learning about various aspects of their job, including their thoughts on the management. Celine is bursting with pride as she reads out comments from the feedback forms. ‘You’re made to feel part of a family’, claims one, while another reads: ‘The store manager always thanks you and gives you praise’.

And the key to her success as a manager? “People say ‘treat everyone the same’, but you can’t,” says Celine. “For example, some people have a lower skills set than others, so you need to invest more time in training them. Or if someone has an unproductive day, then it might be because they’re having family problems, so I won’t be hard on them like I might be if I thought they were just being lazy.”

She claims that training people is of utmost importance to ensuring the store’s success. “I’m into training big time. The people who say that they don’t have time to give training shouldn’t be in the job,” she claims.

“My staff are so good because they know how to do everything. No one had really pushed training in here until I came. I’d tell them: ‘You’re going to Templepatrick to train and they’d be frustrated at having to leave their work at the store, but they came back having learnt something that they could put into practice.”

Celine’s approach to training even stretches as far as work experience students and she is particularly passionate when it comes to those with special needs. “People automatically ignore those with difficulties; it annoys me,” she says.

She regularly takes on work experience placements from local special needs schools, putting them through a full training programme. The students come to the store one day a week for a whole school year, and she has even taken one, Alan, on full-time.

She explains that he has made incredible progress. “When Alan first started one of my managers saw him cleaning the floor and joked that you could sail a boat down the aisle it was so wet!”

But since then he’s come on in leaps and bounds. “He’s one of my best employees,” says Celine.

In recognition of his excellent progress, Celine put Alan forward for an award for taking pride in his work. “We made a really big thing of it and took him up to the office and all the other staff cheered him he was really pleased.”

Working at the store hasn’t just helped Alan’s career, it has also affected him on a personal level. “When Alan first came here he hardly spoke, but now when he hears me complaining, he chips in with a cheeky comment, such as ‘You can’t get the staff these days!’,” laughs Celine. “He gets the same craic as everyone else and loves it!”

store profile

Spar Knocklynn, Coleraine Size: 2,000sq ft Staff: six full-time, nine part-time Opening hours: 7am-11pm, seven days a week Extra services: PayPoint, post office, food to go, ATM, carry-to-car service

Watching Celine’s animated face as she talks about her work, she appears to be the picture of health. And so it comes as quite a shock when she mentions that she has MS an incurable disease which means she suffers bouts of chronic fatigue.

But Celine refuses to let it get her down. “I had a relapse just before Christmas, but I still went to work,” she grins. “Everyone was worried to start with, but the managers know what I’m like I’m not going to let this hold me back.”

If anything, the disease has made her more determined. “Initially, the management tried to get me to reduce my hours, but I don’t want to feel sorry for myself I’ve got my staff and customers to look after,” she says. “The way I look at it is this: ‘Worry about the things you can change, not those you can’t.”

Best Seasonal grocery displa

With holly wreathes, coal and tin foil aplenty, it was the store’s Christmas display that really grabbed the judges’ attention when they awarded Spar Knocklynn Best Seasonal Grocery Display at the Convenience Retail Awards, held earlier this year. 

But it’s not just around Christmastime that customers of Spar Knocklynn are treated to excellent displays. Staff work tirelessly throughout the year to capitalise on every occasion. Take Valentine’s Day, for example. Symbol group Henderson’s provided its stores with packs of half-a-dozen red roses priced at £10, but store manager Celine Molloy immediately saw an additional sales opportunity and used her initiative to put it into action. “I thought: ‘Who wants six roses when it should be 12?’ so I wrapped two bunches together in a bow, and they sold like hot cakes!” she says. And just in case the display alone wasn’t a big enough draw, Celine also set up a personal shopper service. “I told my staff to offer to help men with their shopping,” she says. “I explained to them that, depending on the age of the customer, they were probably looking for a different type of gift. With older men, staff advised a box of chocolates and a big bunch of flowers, and for younger men, smaller flowers and maybe a cuddly toy.” 

Another example of the store’s seasonal prowess is during the annual North West 200 motorbike race in May. “The locals like to sit outside and watch the race as it runs through our town, so I knew it would be a good chance to sell chairs,” says Celine. However, because she only has the option to order chairs in the summer months, the May event falls too early for that year’s order. This means that she has to order an extra 60 chairs in the summer prior to the event, and then store them until the race. “It may sound like a chore,” says Celine, “but they sell at £7 each, so it is definitely worth the effort. “Handling seasonal products is all about planning ahead,” she says. “And by keeping on top of seasonal events, you can really make a difference to sales.”