Crawfordsburn’s retail ‘magnet’ is back from the brink

Linda McCormick, owner of the Spar Topaz forecourt in Crawfordsburn reveals how, after almost seeing her family-business collapse, turned things around to achieve award-winning success

Crawfordsburn’s sleepy black and white Tudor facades contrast sharply with the busy, brilliant colour of Linda McCormick’s Spar store.

Its bounteous shelves bulge with bucolic bundles of crisp, ripe vegetables, while bohemian stacks of artisanal treats bejewel its modest square footage.

Its depth of range and customer-focussed approach were why it took home the Forecourt of the Year Category 1 trophy from the Neighbourhood Retailer of the Year Awards in October.

The independent judges remarked on its “immaculate” presentation, and “impressive” range of local products and friendly staff.

Enjoying the 60th anniversary celebrations

Enjoying the 60th anniversary celebrations

But its current success is the result of a remarkable turnaround for a business that only a few years’ ago was within weeks of shutting permanently.

“My father, a mechanic from Omagh, built the petrol station workshop himself in 1954, opening on Christmas Eve, 1955,” said Linda, thinking back.

She started working in the store as a young girl in the late 1960s.

“It was four gallons of petrol for a pound, or two for ten shillings back then,” Linda said. “We had started selling some groceries, and realised that having a service station and shop together was the way things were going. So it was knocked down and rebuilt it in the 90s as a Spar. Hendersons have been very good to us since then, and are a great company to work with.”

It was a turbulent rebirth, however. Crime became a major problem for the somewhat isolated service station, with Linda and her staff the victim of a number of hold-ups, and even a ram-raid.

“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Linda said. “You name it, and we’ve seen it.”

Despite the setbacks, the family business – then run by Linda and brother John – kept its shoulder to the wheel.

But in 2012, a major fuel theft would almost break their will.60th-7

In the dead of a Friday night in July, thieves rolled-up in a tanker of their own, pulling 7,000 litres – then worth £10,000 – out of the ground and making off.

Soon after, John made the decision to retire, leaving Linda unsure of her future.

“I was close to giving up. Very close,” she said. It would take encouraging and somewhat prescient counsel from the late Jeff Salters, co-founder of the SHS Group, to convince Linda to continue.

“He was a great friend, and a great inspiration to me,” she said. “He told me to hold on, to push through – and that, ‘small shops are making a comeback’.”

Linda also spoke fondly of her fuel supplier Topaz and its area manager Richard Stones, who she said had been “very understanding” throughout the ordeal, working with her to overcome the catastrophic set-back.

And, to ward off any future theft attempts, Linda installed pre-pay pumps for added security.

Enjoying the free samples

Enjoying the free samples

Jeff’s prediction would prove very right for the store, which has flourished since those dark days, but not without a number of astute strategies by Linda.

“After John left I really didn’t know what I would do, so I looked at the business and thought, ‘if I’m the customer, what would I want in a shop?” she said.

“I’ve tried to create a boutique style store. All the Spar own-brand lines are very good, and I’ve mixed them with artisan goods. I constantly try to look at things from a shopper’s point of view.

“Ten years ago, all anyone ever talked about was property, but now they talk about what they are going to cook. Cooking and staying in is the new going out. That means people are shopping little and more often because they want good, fresh food to cook.”

Her artisan range is impressive, with her forecourt convenience store one of the few retailers to stock items from Northern Ireland’s doyen of fine foods, Sawers.

Her range also features O’Doherty’s famous Black Bacon, nitrate-free bacons, corned beef, and veggie burgers, which, Linda gasps, are “to die for”.

She explained her approach is to have “magnets” to draw in regular and new customers from an ever-increasing radius.

Many of those magnets have been healthy foods, including the store’s expanding gluten-free range.

“I do quite a lot of health foods, including Lucy Bee coconut oil and sugar free cocoa,” she said. “I also have dairy free chocolate and ice-cream. Products like these become the reason why people come to you.

“I started with a gluten-free shelf, and now it takes up a whole corner of the store. I’ve really concentrated on fresh and a lot of it loose.”

The success of the business prompted Linda and her team to stage a ‘tasting day’ to celebrate the store’s 60th year. Held at the end of November to avoid a Christmas clash, Linda’s regulars were treated to sparkling soft drinks and free samples.

“We did a tasting with some of Spar’s own brands and had great feedback from the village,” she said. “It’s great to see a high-level of satisfaction among the customers.”

And it’s the loyalty of those customers that have helped make this Spar a central part of village life, not only in Crawfordsburn, but to families from as far as Newtownards, Holywood, and much of Bangor.

Her regulars affectionately call the store “Linda’s”, and the shop is common ground for many, including the occasional famous face.

“I’ve known Gary [Lightbody, lead singer of Snowpatrol] since he was a school boy,” Linda said, explaining they would be on such friendly terms that he would have to occasionally battle for her attention with her other customers.

“Jim Corr comes in often, he’s very into organic foods,” she said. “We also get a lot of the Ulster Rugby team, Nick Williams and Bryn Cunningham come in, as does [former Northern Ireland international footballer] Gerry Armstrong.

“We also have a lot of former Miss Northern Ireland’s that shop here regularly, and a quite a few television personalities.”

Speaking about why her customers feel so at ease in the store, Linda added: “It’s looking after the customer and making them feel they’re wanted, welcomed, and part of your shop.

“I remember a mother telling me her daughter wouldn’t get out of the car and come in because she knew I wasn’t there as my Mini wasn’t parked outside.”

It’s clear to this writer, if not to Linda, that the store’s most important magnet may in fact be her.

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