Thriving forecourt Creightons of Finaghy has been in business since the 1930s when it started life as a garage, so it’s no surprise that it holds a special place in locals’ hearts. But it takes more than just a strong heritage to survive in the cut-throat world of retail, explains general manager Andrew Porter, who joined the store in 1991.

Local links form the very core of the shop. “Our wholesaler was Nisa until 2005, then we signed up with the Henderson Group,” says Andrew. “They’d just developed the Eurospar format and it was a great opportunity to work with a local organisation. It helped to change the customer perception that garages were downmarket.”

Selling local produce is also central to the store’s offering. “Supporting local producers is a big focus for us,” says Andrew. “I prefer to call them producers, rather than suppliers. It tells people that the product has actually been made locally, rather than imported by a local supplier.”

Store profile: Creightons of Finaghy
Staff: 40 full time, 50 part time
Size: 4,500sq ft
Opening hours: 24/7, every day except Christmas day
Additional services: Post office, two ATMs, PayPoint, Lottery, Ticketmaster, hot drinks to go, deli

Andrew is a regular attendee of the Balmoral Show at nearby exhibition centre King’s Hall. The annual agricultural and food show is the biggest of its kind in Ireland, and a great place to meet local producers and sample their wares. “I met Joan Boyd at the show,” he says. “She makes Rocky Road Slices in her own kitchen.” He shows C-Store a pack of the delightfully indulgent chocolate treats. “They’re fairly expensive at £2.40 a pack, but they’re very different and they’re homemade, so customers accept this and are willing to pay a premium.”

Granola brand Crawfords is another local line that Andrew is keen to shout about. Apple, cinnamon & whole almonds, and cranberry, cashew & coconut varieties are sold at a £1 discount, and go down a storm with customers, says Andrew.

Not satisfied with simply displaying products on-shelf, Andrew felt that local produce offered a bigger opportunity and so last June he introduced a Customer Appreciation Week. Local producers came to the store to hand out samples of their products and tell customers their story. Three or four suppliers set up stands in the store each day, across the course of the week. “Local suppliers are a lot more passionate about their products than most, and having the actual person who has made the product on the stand provides a much more authentic experience for the customer,” claims Andrew. 

In fact, customers enjoyed having the direct contact with the producers so much that the event is now held twice a year.

One of the key reasons why Andrew is so in touch with customers’ needs is his willingness to work on the shopfloor. “If any of the shopfloor staff are on holiday, I’m happy to stand in for them,” he says. On C-Store’s visit, Andrew is manning the cereals, biscuits, tea and coffee section. Not only does this give him an opportunity to chat with customers, it also helps him to bond with staff. 

Says Andrew: “Without a doubt, people will open up to you more readily when you’re chatting to them on the shopfloor, rather than coming up to the office. It really is invaluable.”

He adds: “It’s a really good practice for me as I get to focus on a particular area, and it’s also useful to work alongside other staff. It allows me to interact with them more and discuss problems in their particular sections.” 

He claims that the majority of the shop’s products are on a sales-based ordering system. While this is largely effective it isn’t always foolproof, and so Andrew uses his time on the shopfloor to encourage staff to question the system, rather than just accepting it. “It’s a case of getting staff to ask why gaps on the shelves are there,” he says. “For example, maybe it wasn’t available from the supplier, or it could be a computer error it might be due to theft, or because it wasn’t checked in properly in the previous delivery.” He states that the more the staff use their own knowledge in conjunction with the automated system, the better availability will be.

As any good retailer knows, as well as investing time in a store it is also vital that money is regularly invested in equipment and fittings to keep a shop at the top of its game. At Creightons of Finaghy, the hot drinks-to-go section is the latest area to receive a cash injection. “Our old machine cost £10,000, but was getting to the end of its life,” explains Andrew. “We’d had it for five years, and in that time we’ve dispensed at least 300,000 cups! The supplier said if it was a Ford Escort, it would have been around the clock four times!”

Andrew was also of the mindset that one machine was no longer enough to satisfy caffeine-craving customers. “With a 24-hour store, there’s no downtime. Sometimes people would come in when the machine was being cleaned and they’d have to wait, or miss out.”

The store had had a similar problem with its ATM a while back. “In the past, if the cash machine was out of order, or being emptied, we’d miss out on custom,” says Andrew. “That’s why we now have two cash machines outside.”

So it was a case of the more coffee machines the merrier when the new system was installed towards the end of last month. The new hot drinks-to-go station comprises two bean-to-cup coffee machines, one tea machine and one filter coffee machine. The latter is a relatively new concept. “The filter machine isn’t as automated as bean-to-cup,” says Andrew. “It’s all prepared in advance - staff have to grind the beans and transfer them to a brewer, where it is filtered, and then customers serve themselves.” 

But although its production is more intensive, the filter coffee costs less to make, so there is no need for Andrew to charge a premium. “From a service point of view it’s quicker to serve customers if everyone’s drink costs the same,” adds Andrew.

Of course, being a Creightons coffee station, it isn’t a bog-standard drinks area - it had to have a personal touch. The section has been created by a local designer, who previously designed the store’s deli counter. The area has a sophisticated wood-effect finish in keeping with the deli and will share its Deli Creightons logo. And Andrew’s not stopping there. “Coffee is really big at the moment and the margins are 70%,” says Andrew. “We’re working with our local coffee supplier to develop our own blend.” 

The new coffee machines, which have only been operating for a few weeks, are already going down a storm with customers, but they certainly aren’t the only new development. The store has recently added a Ticketmaster service to its post office, which has led to even more custom. “It brings additional people into the store, and we get £1.10 commission per ticket,” explains Andrew. “Snow Patrol tickets were on sale recently and, being a local band, they sold really well. And we had queues right out of the door for Take That earlier in the year.”

When he’s not got his hands full in the store, Andrew is busy fighting for fellow retailers. He attends two Northern Ireland Independent Retail Association meetings a year, and is keen to speak up for indies. “We’re not anti-Tesco, but need to protect local communities and stores, and we can’t have national businesses coming in and wiping everything out.” 

There’s certainly no chance of that happening at Andrew’s store, where he is working hard to build loyalty among customers by getting them to sign up to the shop’s Facebook site. “The biggest challenge has been getting ‘likes’,” he claims. “We’ve run competitions, giving out leaflets encouraging customers to sign up to our Facebook site for the chance to win £100-worth of vouchers. We currently have nearly 300, which is only 1% of our customer base, but at least it’s growing!”

It might still be making its name in the virtual world, but in reality Creightons of Finaghy is a big hit with customers. It certainly gets a big thumbs up from C-Store.