Staying fresh in Armagh

J.D Hunter & Co

Alison Strong, director of J.D. Hunter & Co. speaks to NR on Food Force Ireland’s dedication to supporting local ahead of the annual FFI Direct Trade Supply Exhibition

After almost 100 years of trading, the team behind J.D. Hunter & Co. in Markethill, Armagh are well versed on the complexities of running a successful business; rolling with the challenges, and creating opportunities where they see customer demand.

A huge renovation project five years previously saw the family supermarket undergo a £1m investment, acquiring the Markethill Livestock Sales premises and local police station adjacent to the store.

Now, the 30,000 sq ft supermarket employs upwards of 170 staff, reporting a strong turnover at the end of the financial year in 2018.

Joined in the business by her brother, Richard Hunter, director Alison Strong believes the key to staying ahead of the competition is to constantly evolve.

In a bid to innovate, to be more environmentally friendly and to save on the electricity bill, J.D. Hunter & Co’s most recent investment has been to install solar panels on the roof.

“If you aren’t sitting on track or slightly ahead you would be going backwards,” says Alison. “It’s a constant move to keep up-to-date, to improve, to replace, and to repair things.”

Like many others in the sector, J.D. Hunter & Co has noticed a clear decline in the popularity of canned goods as shoppers seek out fresh and healthier alternatives.

With an in-store butchery, deli, and kitchen, Alison reports that the County Armagh store is able to produce a selection of convenience foods for customers to take home and heat up quickly. Made in-store using fresh, local ingredients, these types of meal solutions tick all the boxes for the health conscious, time poor consumer.

Along with fresh and healthy, locality is also top-of-the-mind for today’s shoppers – a trend that a rural supermarket like J.D. Hunter & Co. can get behind. A high proportion of the store’s fresh fruit and vegetables come from local growers who don’t have the capacity to supply the multiples. Products can vary according to season, but the quality is always there.

As a member of Food Force Ireland (FFI) – a co-operative, in all but name – Alison describes the organisation as “critical” for any Nisa retailer in the region.

“The ethos of FFI is that retailers can buy from whoever they want but the emphasis is very much on local. You get that from the name. The group is very supportive of local suppliers, and of retailers supporting local.

“It is the power of all us retailers coming together to do a deal with local suppliers that is mutually beneficial. FFI does the negotiations for us and brings all the suppliers and retailers together.

And come together they will, for the annual pilgrimage to the Culloden Estate and Spa in honour of FFI’s Direct Trade Supply Exhibition. This year, the event will take place on September 25, with over 60 exhibitors in attendance.

The highly anticipated occasion will see FFI members and suppliers assemble for a lunch and the unveiling of the fourth FFI Supplier Awards which will see five of Northern Ireland’s top companies receive an accolade for their dedication to the industry. Once the celebrations are over it’s down to business as the exhibition takes hold; the air thick with energy as deals are done and relationships forged.

“We look forward to the trade show every year,” says Alison. “We’ve been going to it ever since it started and I would always attend and take along managers of various departments to meet with the suppliers.”

With the aim to get round every stand, a carefully thought out pre-show plan is the ideal way to take advantage of all the fantastic offers available on the day.

“We receive information about special deals before the show so we have the time to look up our sales lists and purchase history to really think about what we are going to order. It works really well as the deals are already set up and you get the chance to talk to all the suppliers and see the products.

“Sometimes when orders are done and deliveries come in you don’t necessarily have face-to-face contact with the suppliers. The trade show is a good opportunity to talk to them and find out what’s going on in the market – what they’re thinking about doing next, or what changes they’re planning. Maybe there’s a product that you haven’t stocked yet and at the show you can actually see it in person and even try it.

“There is also the opportunity to speak to other retailers. Everybody there is in the same boat and has the same interests. It’s a brilliant day.”

 

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