A legacy to be proud of: lifting the lid on Hamilton’s SPAR in Castlederg

A legacy to be proud of: lifting the lid on Hamilton’s SPAR in Castlederg

Retailer Charlie Hamilton lifts the lid on the state-of-the-art refurbishment of his Spar store and forecourt in Castlederg.

Charlie Hamilton is delighted with the customer feedback on the mid-pandemic refurbishment of his SPAR store in Castlederg.

“It’s tremendous, I must say – people are saying to me ‘Thank you for providing this for Castlederg’,” he says.

“It’s really a legacy and the store will be there for a long time after me. It’s a fantastic state-of-the-art store. Every device you can mention is in it – we’ve got a very good security camera system in it, we’ve put in the Glory cash handling system front and back of the house, and two self-serve tills, five checkouts, three trolley serves, two quick serves and two self serve units.”

The next step

And he won’t be stopping there, he says.

“The self serve is going 25% of the business plus, so there will be more self serve units in the very near future, I would think. By this time next year I can see me having four of them. That’s where it’s headed because company-owned stores – for one in particular, 38% of the turnover is self-serve and they reckon they’ll have it at 50% by the end of the year.”

Charlie and Ruth Hamilton own three SPAR stores, in Charlie’s home town of Newtownstewart, Omagh and Ruth’s hometown of Castlederg.

Charlie says he was originally encouraged to go into convenience retail by his father in law, farmer Willie Forbes, who spotted a suitable shop for sale in Newtownstewart back in 1979 and suggested the couple take it over.

The pair went on to buy the store in Castlederg in 1994, followed by the Omagh store three years later.

Roots in Castlederg

“Because my wife was from Castlederg, we always had a notion that we’d like to open a shop in Castlederg and in 1994 a site became available, a very good site in the middle of town,” Charlie says.

“It was just an old filling station with a lorry repair business attached to it. The men that owned it were retiring and we were fortunate enough to buy it. In 1994, we got planning permission and built a state of the art 6,000 sq ft building 4,000 sq ft retail.”

Charlie admits the filling station side of the business had been less of a focus, partially because in the 2000s, customers were crossing the border in their droves to buy the cheaper fuel.

“We had fuel, but we sold no amount of it. We just kept it there but it was of no interest to me – there was no money in it.” he says.

“That Castlederg store has done very well and in 2005 we gave it a renovation and added an off licence and generally did whatever we had to do to make it work, extended the storage a bit and then we added in the off licence and refitted the store and put in new shelves and new checkout and all that good stuff.”

Fresh revamp

But as with all his stores, Charlie didn’t like to stand still for long, and a couple of years ago, the couple decided it was time for a fresh revamp, although it took a while to decide what exactly was needed.

“We’d had a good run for a long time, but we wanted to do something more to it,” he says.

“The store was getting tired and was in need of renovation. We needed to make it a bit bigger and we needed to revamp the storage and so on.

“The first building was 6,000 ft so we decided if we redded everything out a bit we’d have a 6,000 sq foot shop and then we could put the hot food and the toilets and the storage at the back.

“Then we started to do the layout and we were like ‘Mmm, still a bit tight’ – so we got another 1,500 sq foot added on there. So now we were looking at a 7500 sq ft job.

Porch area

“And then we decided, what I’d always wanted was a shop with a big porch. Most shop porches are dismal because whenever you get in you can’t even get a dry trolley – they sit out in the rain or somewhere – so I built this porch which is about 700 sq ft.

“I got a really nice porch built, all glass and stone cladding, and then I said to myself ‘I’m spending that much money that I need to make a really good job of this’, so I got in Whittaker and Watt to do the interior design side of it.

“They came in and did the interior design, they designed the ceiling and the lights and the fantasy wooden ceiling effect that we have.

“Then once we decided where everything was going they designed the areas around the hot food area, round the butcher area, the glass and the signage and they made a really first class job of the off licence. It’s all wood and different level lighting and the off licence is spectacular, to be honest.”

Design challenges

Ashley Lamont, of Whittaker and Watt describes the challenges that they faced.

“It was an existing building that was extended and it had difficulties in terms of opportunities in there. The existing roof was poorly insulated so we couldn’t take out the suspended ceiling tiles to open up the roof – we needed to keep a thermal barrier at ceiling level,” he says.

“And we actually developed this new technique with Dougan Contracts Ltd where we used a timber veneer on a suspended ceiling tile system and then created a psychological path around the shop using that material and framed it with the LED lighting in here.

“That really captures you at the entrance doors and makes all the customers turn left.

Then you’re going down the promotional aisle, you’re going to the coffee, you’re going to your deli and the journey takes you on round to the butchery section to the off sales, the ice cream and checkouts. It really completes the whole shopping journey.”

In the pipeline

Work on the store took a year, starting in January 2021, but the project had been in the pipeline for a while, Charlie says.

“We were thinking about doing something with the shop, and then it got bigger and bigger. It was almost ready to go and then the pandemic came in and we just said no for a little while to see what happened,” he says.

“We were sort of starting work in the middle of the pandemic if you think about it. We started in 2021 when the building trade had started to open up again with precautions.

“We built a new building out the back, we moved into it then and renovated the shop, and opened it on the second week in November – that was a low key opening because the off licence still wasn’t sorted out and we had other things to do.”

Pandemic days

Like everyone, they faced a tough time during the early stages of the pandemic, Charlie says.

“We were like everybody else, you were fighting something you couldn’t see and it was really tough.

“The checkout operator and the binman and the bus driver and all the other people that delivered essential services, they never got the recognition that they deserve.

“We cut our hours because we closed earlier – some of the staff came in at 5-6 o’clock in the morning and packed the shop whenever there was nobody in it, and that cut down contact.

You just did as much as you could to try to keep staff safe.

Supporting customers

“We were extremely busy  – because you’re in the off licence business it was unbelievable  , the level of business it did in its own right, and the shops did well.

“The other thing we organised shopping for people – we call it just helping customers. We delivered our groceries to the customers, whatever we could do to help the customers.

The customers really appreciated us stepping up to the mark and making sure the goods were there for them and they didn’t have to come out if they were sheltering..

“I think the other thing is they realised that a SPAR store had a lot more to offer than sometimes they gave them credit for. All of a sudden, there’s a store I could use, and that has stood to a lot of retailers.”

Hot food concept

One of the trends that the Hamiltons have pioneered in their stores has been the hot food concept.

Inspired by retailer John Connolly in Lisnaskea, Charlie decided many years ago to start serving hot food for lunches, including fries and sausage rolls.

“The menu hasn’t really changed that much in all the years – you made a stew, you made spuds, different things, whatever comes along, except that there’s been bits added into it, but the basics are the same,” he says.

“I was the first one in Northern Ireland to have an open fronted mineral cooler. I had this idea that doors were a hold-back to trade so I got Coca Cola persuaded to come along with me. I got the open fronted fridge to see if it worked and I monitored the sales.

Automatic doors

“I was also one of the first retailers to put in automatic doors – you wouldn’t think how important automatic doors are. It’s more if you have children, a woman with prams and pushchairs and stuff trying to push through the door – that’s where I saw the big problem was. We’ve always been very customer aware and customer friendly if possible.”

While the filling station had been a smaller part of the Castlederg business, Charlie decided six years ago to team up with Nicholl Oils and install new pumps with pay-at-the-pump systems.

“When Nicholl Oils took me on I was doing 8,000 litres a week, and then I had the border thing to deal with. Thankfully that has now turned round and we’re pushing 25,000 litres a week now through two pumps, self serve, and it’s working,” he says.

“We’ve expanded dramatically, but we’ve pushed on in fresh food because that’s where the business is and has been for a long time. We’ve got a very strong deli/hot food business and we can run it from 7 in the morning to half four in the afternoon.”

Innovations in store

Charlie says he still has more innovations in mind for the Castlederg store.

“We want to start bringing in self-serve hot food, but we want everything to settle down first. You don’t try to do everything on the first day – I’d rather do it in stages and do it right,” he says.

“But self serve hot food will be the next thing that we’re trying to make work, in whatever format I can.”

He’s also eyeing more changes at the other stores.

“We’re still in the process of planning but I’ve bought a piece of land next door to the supermarket in Newtownstewart and we’re planning to build a brand new state of the art SPAR supermarket in it hopefully next year. That will be the big one – it’s the home site in Newtownstewart,” he says.

To read the full feature in May’s Neighbourhood Retailer, click HERE.