Spar Mallusk

Seeing is believing when it comes to Henderson’s Spar Mallusk store in Newtownabbey. We all know that Northern Ireland has a fine reputation for forecourt stores, but Spar Mallusk really is in a class of its own thanks to its status as Henderson’s laboratory store.

Mark McCammond, retail director at Henderson Group, explains: “Spar Mallusk is right next to our head office, so we all get a chance to see it and live it and shop there every day. Its location means we see it more than any other store and there are lots of people at Hendersons and everyone has an opinion.”

But the fact that it has become a test store for Henderson is not just because of its location, there’s a story there too.

The Henderson Group bought the site in 2003. Then the shop was basically a 950sq ft kiosk, with a small turnover while the site did a reasonable trade in fuel. In 2006, The Group expanded the shop to 2,000sq ft and McCammond admits they did little with it after that – but there was a good reason. The company had its eye on the land around it which was then occupied by a car showroom and workshops. They had to wait for the land to come up for sale to make their move and that didn’t happen until 2021.

Spar Mallusk’s location is different for Henderson in that it is on one of the biggest industrial estates in Northern Ireland. It’s full of car showrooms with new housing schemes around the outside but they are still quite a way away from the shop. “It’s an unusual site for us because industry is really our neighbour, and the housing is really on the fringe. We would normally position sites with housing, neighbours and industry on the fringe. But we had years to think about developing the site to get it right.”

And get it right they have, with the store achieving its year three targets within just the first few months of opening.

Spar Mallusk Barista drive thru

Drive-thru success

The site is huge at four acres, and you can still drive all the way around it. This has given Henderson the chance to try lots of things including the company’s first drive-thru Barista Bar, which is proving to be a great success.

McCammond says: “The drive-thru is appealing to time-short motorists, those who don’t want to go into a busy store. Our average serve time at the drive-thru from point of order to point of collection is two minutes, 30 seconds so it really is quick. And it’s not just coffee that we’re serving, it’s food as well. We are serving a range of snacks by day part. So, customers can get a coffee and a doughnut, or coffee and a meat slice or sausage roll or even a handheld breakfast.”

He adds that offering a drive-thru is a bit like offering pay-at-pump. The people using the drive-thru wouldn’t have gone into the shop because they don’t want to stop; they don’t have the time. But actually, they are spending more on the site because they’ve seen the drive-thru and use it. “We’re all about giving people choice and letting them make a decision. We’ve done that here with the drive-thru and we’ve been rewarded for that.”

There is space for plenty of vehicles to queue at the drive-thru with screens along the way – just like you’d see at a McDonald’s. drive-thru.

As for the store, today it measures a whopping 5,400sq ft and has been designed as a Spar ‘For Now, For Later’ store. McCammond explains this by saying half the store is for things to eat now, ie food to go while the other half is for products you’d put in your kitchen cupboard – for later.

The front half of the shop is dedicated to food to consume right now. It has a Subway, a Delish counter, Barista Bar coffee with three machines and also a large seating area. Henderson owns the Barista Bar brand. It’s the biggest coffee brand in Northern Ireland, selling about 11million cups a year. But it will soon be seen in the mainland UK thanks to deals with the East of England Coop and CJ Lang in Scotland. Henderson’s ownership of Barista Bar means it can trial new things. The latest is Planted, which features oat-based milk. Just one of the machines offers Planted but already the oat-based milk option accounts for 20% of sales.

Spar Mallusk skip the q

Skip the Q

Delish uses the latest technology with its Skip the Q order points – again just like you would see in McDonald’s. You order and pay using the touchscreen then go and pick up your food from the counter.

McCammond explains: “With the digital ordering we are almost getting into QSR territory. We’ve all seen this in McDonald’s and Hendersons has a technology company, so we thought why can’t we do this ourselves? It is proving popular with the younger demographic, as you would imagine. But we don’t want to alienate any older people coming in, who may be less tech savvy, so they can walk up to the counter and get served in the traditional way.”

The Delish counter is home to all of Henderson’s hot food-to-go offerings – and there’s quite a variety of sub brands to choose from. There’s the Ice Cream & Shakes counter, the Chicken Bar, which is self-service, the Southern Fried Chicken Bar, which is serviced, the Hot Food Bar, and the Burrito Bar where you choose a burrito or bowl, then you choose rice or green salad, then beans, pepper or onions, then protein and finally, your topping.

Food to go over-sells in the shop – in a big way. “Typically, a good shop with good food to go will get 10% of its sales from that food to go. But here food to go is 30% of the shop’s sales, which is radical.” In total, 60% of the shop turnover is from fresh foods (fresh food comprises butchery, bakery, fresh produce, dairy and all the hot food to go. “This is nirvana for us because back 15 years ago, our fresh. participation was 33%. across our estate. But in our EuroSpar format last year it was 50% and this hybrid store is knocking at 60% on fresh food.”

“I’m calling this a laboratory store because we’re going to try lots of new things,” says McCammond. More tech is evident as soon as you step inside the store. The first thing you see are the electronic shelf-edge labels. These help the staff with the massive range as there are about 6,000 SKUs in the store, which is more akin to the range in a supermarket than a c-store.

The shop also makes use of Glory’s automated closed-loop cashing-up system which means that none of the staff touch cash in the store.

“What I mean by a closed loop is that when you go to the self-checkout, you feed in notes in the automated system. And even if you go to the regular checkout, it is exactly the same setup. So, the customer advisor will be behind the till and will process the goods for you, but they don’t touch cash at all. It’s fully automated. We don’t touch any cash,” McCammond affirms. “There’s no reconciliation. There’s no counting anything. It’s very radical. But you can ultimately see the benefits. There’s no management time wasted making floats or counting cash. And once the cash-in-transit company picks up the cash our bank account is credited.”

He reckons half of Spar Mallusk’s customers use self-scan, and the other half use the regular checkouts again; it’s all about choice again, he says.

At Spar Mallusk, the other big thing from a technology point of view is the system that manages product availability. It’s a Relex automatic store replenishment system which has led to the store having an impressive 98%-plus availability rate.

Mark McCalland

Automatic learning

McCammond describes it as “automatic learning”. “Relex is powered by AI using an algorithm that is constantly monitoring our stock forecast and demand. It also runs our warehouse, meaning this is an end-to-end warehouse to shelf edge replenishment system. We can therefore manage our stock all the way through from supplier to warehouse, from warehouse to shop and from shop to consumer.

“What is more, this algorithm has a weather forecast built into it based on the postcode of the shop. So, if the sun shines, we’ll get more ice cream delivered. And if the rain pours, we get more bulk fuel delivered.”

There are also many LEDs around the store and super-efficient refrigeration. McCammond says they debated whether to have doors on chillers or not. They decided not to in this particular store but put eco blades in instead. He describes these as ‘a low-cost, high-return extension to the shelves in all the chillers.’ The result is chilled food but with a 10% reduction in energy use.

For Spar Mallusk, Henderson recruited early, with staff getting training six months before the new store opened in existing stores. Henderson looks after its staff very well. It has just put their pay rates up, putting them above the rates of many high street retailers.

“Every penny we save from technology, we put into pay, so we’re going to have the highest paid convenience staff we can possibly have,” says McCammond. “We’ve been ahead of the national wage for years now and pay the best rates in the industry.” Staff also benefit from generous staff discounts.

The store has a post office, which is very busy with a lot of business coming from all the nearby car showrooms using it to tax vehicles. The old store had a post office before, but it didn’t have the same number of services so was less busy.

Meanwhile, the For Later part of the store includes a very impressive butcher’s counter, which is run by an independent butcher called Mayfield. They have a butcher’s shop half a mile away from the Spar but having their counter in the Spar has not affected their shop sales at all.

McCammond says some might question why you would put a butchery department in ‘For Now, For Later’ site that’s on an industrial estate with houses just on the periphery. He explains: “In the old shop typically most of the trade was done Monday to Friday and there was very little at the weekend because the industrial estate was closed. Since we put the new shop in with all the fresh food, Saturday and Sunday are just as busy as Monday to Friday. And 5% of our shop sales are from the butchers. We’re selling beef joints for up to £20. People are coming from the periphery of houses around the industrial estate to buy meat. And that’s really given me confidence that we can pull people in from much further afield than the traditional quarter mile.”

As well as a big bump in shop sales, the site has seen fuel volumes rise too. They have three brands across their 77-strong forecourt estate: BP, Texaco and Maxol, and they have a reciprocal supply agreement with Maxol, where Henderson supplies them with a lot of their food for their forecourt sites in Northern Ireland. At Mallusk, they will add a number of EV charging points on the next phase of development.

The store is proving to be a great success. McCammond says it has had lots of press coverage in Northern Ireland because it is so radically different to other stores. As well as a laboratory store, he describes Spar Mallusk as the ‘ultimate version’ of a For Now, For Later store and it’s interesting to note that this is all only phase one of the development for this site. So that’s it for now, but you can bet there will be more later.