Engineering success – 2015’s retailer of the year speaks to NR

Tom McAvoy, Northern Ireland’s Retailer of the Year, tells NR how he built an award-winning super store, almost by accident, and his latest plans to do what no one else would dare.

It was a typically rainy Rathfriland Wednesday evening in 1988. Tom McAvoy had finished another punishing day at B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel and was filling up his car in the town’s shabby Milestone petrol station.

Flying high as a talented engineer and aircraft component designer, Tom was suffering an all too common problem – his boss was impossible to work for.


The award-winning Milestone in Rathfriland

After filling up, Tom got speaking to the station’s owner. It was for sale, and not so much of a ‘fixer-upper’ as a ‘completely-overhauler’.

“It was just a spare of the moment thing,” Tom said. “I just thought, ‘why not, I’ll give it a go’. I thought at the time I’d take it on for, say, two years and then get rid of it.”

The two shook hands, and with a dilapidated single pump petrol shack in the middle of two-horse town, Tom was now in the retail business.

Some 27 years and £3.5 million later, the Milestone – and its eponymous Cromwellian monolith marking the number of Irish miles to Dublin – has moved to the other side of the road, has another few thousand square feet, and this year, is officially the best independently operated store in the country.

“I just thought you have to really go for it; no half measures,” he told Neighbourhood Retailer. If it’s one thing you can say about the Milestone Nisaextra in Rathfriland, it is that nothing is done by half.

It is that dedicated approach to the store that led to Eamonn Holmes reading out its name at the culmination of the Neighbourhood Retailer Awards 2015, held in October. And it was a night Tom remembers fondly.

“It’s been a great morale booster,” he said. “There was around 12 of us there on the night, and although we were confident we’d win the Deli of the Year Award [which they did], we didn’t expect to win the overall prize.”

The Milestone’s latest incarnation opened in 2013, and it’s a striking edifice that greets you when you arrive, directed into the car park by blinking blue LED signs advertising the latest deals inside.

And while Rathfriland, a hill top town in sleepy south Co Down, has aged fairly gracefully, this striking store has managed to avoid carbuncular comparisons, its modern lines aiding, not scorning its surroundings.

Customers at the Milestone Nisa Extra

Customers at the Milestone Nisa Extra

Inside is a wood-panelled, calming environment, with a soft natural brightness; soothing greens and tan browns adding a freshness and homely quality.

The floor space feels wide, aisles sweep and bend instead of ending in abrupt angles, and the store has extracted good value from its square footage.

“We used Edge Design in Lisburn; Brian Heaney and Morris Beckett,” Tom said. “We had a meeting with them every two weeks for some six months before we started the build.

“It was all completely signed off before the architects and builders got started on the build, and fed back to the engineers.

“The build itself was fairly complicated. We wanted to remove some large beams and it took a lot of work.”

Tom’s vision for the new Milestone had some unusual elements to it. Instead of the market trend for almost aggressive point of sale, and in-your-face merchandising, his approach is starkly different.

“I didn’t want huge red labels hanging out from the shelves, with ‘50% off’ and that sort of thing,” he explains. “I wanted it to be more minimalist, more subtle. I wanted the products to sell themselves through good display.”

Asked which elements of the store he was most pleased with, Tom was… torn.

“We put a lot of emphasis on display cabinets and shelving so they look really well,” he began. “The fruit and veg, that came out looking good. Actually, so did the off-licence…and the deli, the deli looks great too.”

What about the front, it looks…

“Oh yes, I’m really pleased with the front of the store also!”

While happy with the store as she stands, Tom has invested a few £100ks in the store’s bakery department.

Not stopping at new counters and staff, its upstairs now has its own bespoke bakery, with huge white mixers, preparation areas, its own tabernacle of bakers, and new top-of-the-range ovens with their own digital display screens.

It’s all strikingly futuristic for Rathfriland.

“We spent a lot of money upgrading it,” Tom admits. “Bakery is starting to be a big player in our whole operation. We have a couple of really good bakers here and their bread is top notch. It’s probably the fastest growing section of the shop.

“It’s just one of those things that you can either fiddle about with for a long time and it’ll go nowhere, or you take it to the next level, so that’s what we did. It’s always going to be part of the staple diet – it’s a bread and butter product!”

The in-store offlicence

The in-store offlicence

Ambitious investments like these prompt an important question. With only 2,500 people within Rathfriland’s humble square kilometre, how is it generating the money to warrant such a flagship store?

The answer, while obvious, reveals much about Tom’s insight.

“Well, over half of our customers come from outside the town, from up to six or seven miles away,” Tom said. “That’s the very reason why we have put so much investment into the shop. Basically, to work, it had to be a destination site and draw in people from miles around. It needs to have enough of a draw because there aren’t enough people living in the town to run a shop like this. That’s why we have to go top-level on everything.”

It’s that approach that has led Tom to his next big venture, an unprecedented step that could be his riskiest yet.

“In the next 12 months, we’re planning to build a 100 seater restaurant in-store,” he begins. It’s a proven model that many stores have adopted, from Sainsbury’s to Centra – hot on-the-go food for tired shoppers. Surely a no-brainer. The Milestone already has a seated area for around 30 people.

But that’s not exactly what Tom has in mind.

“No, we’re going to have a proper restaurant,” he interrupted. “It’s going to be something very special – something niche. We want to do something on a level that no other shop has done yet.”

The Milestone's fresh range is chilled by a special spray device

The Milestone’s fresh range is chilled by a special spray device

Telling us about the restaurant models under consideration, it seems Tom has engaged in a great deal of research. The options lack in neither ambition nor risk, and if the idea is realised then Rathfriland – indeed, South Co Down – will not have seen the like of it.

“We’re still very much in the planning stage, but it will be something you haven’t seen before in a shop like this,” he said.

The Milestone is one of the town’s chief employers, with 150 staff mostly drawn from the immediate area. The average week day will see 35 on the floor at any one time, and with 120 hours of rotas to fill each week, it’s a healthy staff complement.

“We’re heavy on staff,” Tom said. “We have a HR person who oversees the staffing, and its run very much department to department with only a little bit of crossover. There are department managers, and each are accountable for their department.”

And while some argue a skeleton staffing approach saves costs in the long term, Tom has a very different opinion. He explains his hefty staffing is a long term solution, not a short term fix.

“Our approach is to use a lot of staff in each department, because that’s what you need to do to have a high standard of service,” he said. “If you want to deliver for customers, you need the people, and customers appreciate that and come back.”

Investing in staff comes high on Tom’s list of priorities, which is clear when we speak about the store winning the Neighbourhood Store of the Year at the recent Neighbourhood Retailer Awards.

“It’s one thing to build a big shop, but you need to have a brilliant team around you,” he said. “It’s having the staff that put in the time and effort that is key, and I’ve got a great team here.”

It’s an issue that has an element of topicality to it, as Dunnes Stores, not known for overstaffing, closed one of its biggest and oldest NI stores during a particularly bad week for local retail in early November.

Tom suggested Dunnes’ recalcitrant attitude to keeping up with changing consumer behaviour had been a factor.

He said: “They done very little for some time. There was a time when Dunnes was cutting edge, but they haven’t changed anything for a while. Cutting costs and corners eventually catches up with you.”

And Tom knows what he’s talking about, with the Milestone’s sales booming by 25 per cent on last year, way ahead of every retail metric available.

It all links back to his belief that “success is not a destination, it’s a journey,” and that constant upheaval, refreshment and investment keeps things interesting not just for the owners, but also for the staff and the customers.

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