Radically traditional – Creightons

Creightons is a respected institution, ahead of the curve at every turn and one of the city’s most iconic retailers. Group manager Andrew Porter shares his insights…

Group manager Andrew Porter

The story of Creightons is one about brand building, but not in the way you would think.

Far from the pushed envelopes and ‘synergies’ nonsense of today’s buzzword-bulging brand thinking, Creightons is innovating using methods many class as outdated – building trust, focusing on community, finding their own solutions, and being prepared to take risks.

But this is a world of fake news, click-bait and guerrilla advertising. Are traditional values enough?

The group, which is owned by popular and much-experienced retailers Niall Creighton and Gail Boyd, extends to three sites, at the beginning, middle, and end of one of Belfast’s busiest stretches – the Upper Lisburn Road.

There is also a successful car mechanic and vehicle recovery business run from a premises on the doorstep of the Finaghy outlet. It’s essentially the business that started it all, and says a lot about Creightons resistance to abandoning its roots.

Niall Creighton making his Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech 

Former Neighbourhood Retailer Awards Lifetime Achievement award-winner, Niall, runs the 85-year-old-business – once his father’s – with his sister Gail Boyd, and group manager Andrew Porter.

Andrew started working in Creightons Finaghy – two-time Neighbourhood Retailer Awards Store of the Year winner (2006 and 2008) – while on summer break from his degree in pure mathematics.

Creightons Garage Finaghy.

Now, 25 years later, his is an important brain behind one of Northern Ireland’s best-known and most successful convenience retail groups.

“I was working part-time on the tills while studying at Queen’s,” he told Neighbourhood Retailer when we visited the group’s third site, Creightons Balmoral, in mid-April.

“They had just rebuilt the site, that was 1991, and they needed someone in the office. They offered me the position and I just stayed.”

After retailing out of one site – Finaghy – for 85 years, the other two stores have been added in remarkably quick succession, with the acquisition of the Blacks Road site in 2015, and the Balmoral site opening in May 2016.

Blacks Road

Creightons Garage Blacks Road

Andrew admits the acquisitions were in part foresight and part fate.

“The opportunity to take on the Blacks Road site came up and we just jumped at it,” he said. “In 2016 we rebranded it with a Topaz forecourt, and took away the carwash to give the space to a larger carpark. Then in June of that year, we gave the exterior a major face-lift and carried out an internal renovation.”

The renovation was to bring the Blacks Road site to the standard of the 6,000 sq ft Balmoral outlet, which received a shock-and-awe response across the industry when the scale of its daring was revealed last May.

Built from scratch, the store is a lesson on modern convenience retailing, and has been hailed by influential retailing figures, such as chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association Brian Madderson, who after a recent first visit described it as “extraordinary”.

Creightons also recently held a luncheon visit for distinguished members of the Spar UK Guild. Following the event, member Paul Stone tweeted: “Amazing visit to Creightons Balmoral today, taking Spar to next level! Awesome Store.”

And Andrew revealed that this July will see the full refurbishment of the Finaghy store, bringing it up to the standards set by its younger siblings. Much bated breath abounds ahead of that grand reopening.

‘Extraordinary’ Balmoral

 

Creightons Garage Balmoral

Just yelling distance from the iconic Kings Hall and Balmoral Golf Course, the Balmoral EUROSPAR and BP forecourt is at the nexus of not only an arterial route, but also a number of affluent areas, including the Malone Road, Balmoral Avenue, and Harberton, the latter of which is about to see the completion of large and exceedingly swanky estate.

A future planning scheme at the King’s Hall includes a very large health–based village and represents a gross development value of £100 million which during the construction phase and post development will be a significant asset to the Balmoral site.

“We and Henderson Group both saw an opportunity here, given the location,” Andrew said, as he discussed the origin of their plans for the Balmoral forecourt.

“It was previously a Henderson Group site. We were very confident there was a customer base out there to make a store like this work.”

Andrew said that Niall, Gail, and he were cognisant, however, that customers would likely come from a range of sources.

“Of course, we knew we would see a lot of people coming from the Malone Road area, but there was also a lot of passing trade,” he said. “There is also a large number of nearby businesses, such as in the Boucher Road, so we expected to see a lot of workers during lunchtime.

“We were looking at a real mix of people and residents.”

Andrew admitted the pressure was on during the build-up to the opening, but while there may have been butterflies, there was also an unwavering confidence in the store as a concept.

“We took confidence in the fact that the Finaghy store was over-trading,” he revealed. “We had good reason to believe customers were bypassing it because it was too busy, so we knew without a shadow of a doubt it would work.

“It’s the first petrol station you meet along that road after you leave the city centre. There used to be many forecourts along the Lisburn Road in the past that are not there anymore, with many of the sites redeveloped into apartments. But the amount of traffic remains.”

Bold designs

Probably the most striking aspect of the site is its design. It’s a bold statement, with an edifice of glass and crimson paintwork, featuring a confident Creightons logo to turn heads from every direction.

The forecourt, meanwhile is strikingly geometric, with an eye-catching and richly lit multi-toned tiling effect on its underside.

Inside is even more daring, with distressed timber panels and floor tiles, minimalist LED lighting, and proud artworks that hark back to the brand’s heritage.

No attention to detail was spared, with even the toilets furnished in an attractive hotel style.

Creightons Garage Balmoral

Andrew explained that once the initial concept got off the ground and through the crucial planning permission stage, Ashley Lamont from Whittaker and Watt Architects then came on board to design the exterior.

But things would take an interesting turn.

“While Ashley was working on the exterior concept for the store, he asked to be considered to do the internals too,” Andrew explained. “It was something he hadn’t really done to this extent before but we were so happy with the exterior design and he was so confident of his ideas that we decided to take a leap of faith with him.

“He was very creative and very interested in the retail offering. We really gelled with Ashley and he got involved with everything. He did a fantastic job.”

A sign inside Creightons Garage Balmoral

Throughout the project, the Creightons team was keen to work with many local service providers and manufacturers in the construction phase of the Balmoral site, including Bank of Ireland, McGaffin Contracts (the project’s main contractor), Portglenone Refrigeration, Martin Food Equipment, Little Electrical, Shopfit & Design, and many, many more.

While much of the store was new, there were a number of elements from the original Finaghy outlet that made their way into Creightons Balmoral.

“The deli was always a big thing for us in Finaghy,” Andrew said. “Food is the future and we made that a real statement in this store.”

Deli-ghtful

Indeed, the deli counter is nothing short of expansive. Aside from the butchery counter (more on that later) the entire rear of the store is given over to freshly prepared food-to-go, and Creightons branded pre-packed meals. It’s interesting to note that all food preparation takes place instore, with a network of dedicated kitchens under the shop floor.

These kitchens are now the epicentre of food preparation for the whole group, with talented chefs cooking up the convenient and tasty meals Creightons has become famous for.

“We also learned from experience that car parking is a big part of a successful forecourt and convenience business,” Andrew added. “The car parking at Finaghy, for example, has always been a problem. The site was never designed to handle the volume of sales it has achieved.

“Here (Balmoral) we have a great car park, and it’s worked really well. You have to carefully consider that balance between the size of shop and the car park.”

Creightons was one of the first forecourts in which this writer recalls seeing a fully functioning barista-style self-service coffee dock in the city. For Andrew, it was another key element the Balmoral store borrowed from its older brother.

“In our other stores, we brought in successful bean-to-cup machines, and were certainly ahead of the game when we brought the first one to the Finaghy store,” he said. “At the Balmoral site, however, we have a barista offering. Bean-to-cup can be a bit limited in terms of the range it can make, so we felt the barista style machine was something a bit different, as it can make cappuccinos and lattes, which lends itself better to this site.”

Andrew observed that modern convenience store coffee is becoming increasingly sophisticated, but as we sipped the Creightons branded Americanos in his office, it was clear few had reached this level of finesse.

This is a key part of understanding the Creightons brand.

It’s not a hard sell based on saturation coverage, cheesy aspirational imagery and trite straplines: It’s a new approach, which ironically is an old approach – the food is good, the coffee is good, the store is clean, the offer is right, the quality is reliable.

The secret of Creightons is that its traditional values aren’t backward – if anything they’re progressive; maybe even radical.

“We’ve been ahead of the curve on a lot of things,” Andrew said. “We’ve always been innovative in retail.

“The Finaghy store was one of the first 24 hour shops in Northern Ireland, and that was something it became known for. The doors didn’t close, except for Christmas day; that was a big thing when no one else was doing it.”

Selling, sold

One of Creightons other major selling points was establishing its reputation as the only store you could depend on for that important last-minute gift. On the surface, it sounds simple – but as Andrew explained, it was a strategy that takes guts, even to this day.

“The big thing we’ve always done particularly well is seasonal events – Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day – we always pushed the boat out on those days to give a complete offer. We really tried to shake off the image of the ‘forecourt flowers’.

“We’re never conservative on stock levels on these dates, and maintain our stock even up to the 11th hour. I’ve been in the store on the day before Valentine’s and we’re bursting with stock. Then I’ve come in the next day and it’s all gone.

“It’s a risky strategy, but we always sell out.”

Creightons Garage Finaghy

Andrew doesn’t deny the location in Finaghy has played its part, describing it as “perfect”, but the same could have been said of the many other and now long-gone forecourts that once stood along this vital route.

The success of the business was also bolstered by the installation of a post office, another area in which Creightons was among the first to the party.

“We weren’t the first community store with a post office, but it came in during 2006, so we were early,” Andrew said.  “It’s a great footfall driver, and really helps establish the store as a part of the community as well.”

Community is a thread that permeates the Creightons reputation, with the brand known for excellent customer service and staff.

Andrew describes working at Creightons as a “rite of passage” for many young local people who, like him, began their career working their summers on the tills. For many it’s a job that carries quite a quantity of kudos with future employers.

“We have a great team of staff, and are proud to employ lots of local people in the community,” he said.  “We do a lot of staff training, and we like to identify and train good staff up to management level. It’s very beneficial to the staff involved and the business. I’m just one such example having started on the tills.”

The Finaghy store has an Investors In People accreditation, something Andrew is planning to roll out across the group.

Charity

The staff also take an active role in supporting local charities, with Creightons continuing its long partnership with NI Hospice, contributing over £100,000 over the years.

The group is now involved with Cancer Fund for Children, and have raised over £300,000 for the charity with instore cake sales, and even a zip-line challenge over the River Lagan.

“We’ve had staff go to Peru and Cuba on charity expeditions, and last year I joined a delegation that walked the Rockies in North America. It was an amazing experience.”

That community loyalty bleeds into the Creightons approach to local suppliers.

“We’re very passionate about working with local producers,” Andrew said. “We were the first local forecourt deli to achieve ‘Taste of Ulster’ accreditation in 2011, and stock a number of Taste of Ulster products.

“We also take a delegation of staff to the Balmoral Show every year. We meet many new and local producers there and we’ve ended up listing their products in the store. It’s really valuable to visit shows like this, as staff get to know the people who make the products in the store.”

It’s an indication of the Creightons team’s reactive and responsive approach, to never passively accept the situation, but to look and find new and better ways of doing things.

 Ice-cream and butchery

 

The approach is best exemplified by the team’s DIY attitude to ice-cream and butchery, as Andrew explained.

“Before opening the Balmoral store, we wanted an ice-cream counter and were looking at a number of good producers,” he said. “But then Niall said, ‘why don’t we just do it ourselves? We knew absolutely nothing about it but decided to give it a go, and everyone agrees it looks amazing.”

That led to the creation of the vibrant counter that greets customers as they enter, and its delectably dazzling contents, which are made in the subterranean kitchens mentioned above.

A hit with customers, the in-house ice-cream is also supplied to the Blacks Road forecourt, another advantage of the group’s proximity. It’ll also soon feature in the Finaghy store.

“It’s a big part of our approach – we like to try and do things ourselves, and that helps reinforce the Creightons brand,” he said.

The butchery has taken the DIY philosophy a considerable step further.

“When we built this store, it was our first ever venture into butchery,” Andrew explained. “We had the same debate as the ice-cream. A lot of convenience stores use local butchers to set up instore concessions, but again we saw the opportunity to do it ourselves.

“All the beef meat we sell comes from the family farm in the Clogher Valley. So we have full control over our supply.

“We have ‘Creightons Beef’ on the boxes and the products are prepared by experts. That again adds strength to the brand – the quality is exceptional, and used in all our pre-packed ranges sold across the group”

As Andrew looked to the company’s future, he said the relationship with Henderson Group, which began in 2005, is set to continue.

“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership, and has been instrumental in helping us drive the business forward,” he said. “Their marketing is excellent, and if we ever need advice, there is always someone there who is an expert.”

With a freshly updated website (www.creightons.co.uk) and 12,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook, Creightons has successfully embraced the modern marketplace with its sights set keenly on the future.

Creightons priorities are now to “consolidate and grow” according to Andrew.

“The original Finaghy store was 80 years in the making,” he said. “This Balmoral store has only been around one year. What we want to do now is develop and nurture the business for the years ahead.”

He is also particularly pleased at the sales performance across all the stores, especially with each being relatively close to each other.

He was proud to report the Balmoral site, which is yet to enjoy its first birthday, had budgeted for weekly shop sales of £77,000. However, during the week of our meeting, the store was able to achieve north of £125,000.

The business may indeed be right to be excited about the future but, importantly, it has learned that it’s just as important to not lose sight of its past.

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