History-making year for Milestone
Tom McAvoy is a mainstay of NI grocery retail. An entrepreneur whose decisions and innovations have helped shape the independent retail sector right across the province, he reflects on what it means to still win awards after all this time and the importance of looking forward in the industry.
It came as no surprise to the crowded room at the Crowne Plaza Belfast when Milestone Rathfriland was named Northern Ireland’s Retailer of the Year 2023. Winning the title for a record-breaking fourth time, Tom McAvoy also was named as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
It was a night full of award wins for the County Down store, as Milestone was also named Food to Go Store of the Year and Neighbourhood Store of the Year (Cat 4) winners.
In 2014, after extensive development, Tom and his wife, Ann opened an impressive 16,000 sq ft store on Newry Street, Rathfriland, with some 200 staff – the culmination of years of drive and commitment and support in the local area and further afield.
One of the first to adapt new and exciting initiatives and developments in retail, the Milestone is regularly looked upon as the standard for other retailers to aspire to, and since 2014 Tom has made many changes to the award-winning store.
“Being a destination store we realised that there were many customers and visitors that travelled a distance to visit our store,” Tom told NR.
“We created a restaurant where people could meet and eat in a comfortable environment and Loft 56 opened in October 2019.”
While there were difficulties brought on with the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, Loft 56 is now a thriving restaurant, enjoying popularity and positive reviews.
“There were many hiccups with covid closing such businesses in March 2020, however we are delighted to have this facility for our own guests and the community at large,” added Tom.
There have been updates and improvements made in-store, with their bakery modernised and mechanised, purchasing more equipment which helps to speed up the baking process, allowing them to bake in bulk with greater ease.
A biomass burner was also introduced, enabling them to use the extensive amounts of cardboard to heat the store.
“We bought two houses at the rear of the Milestone site, which allowed us to develop our car parking facilities,” added Tom. “This created 90 car parking spaces and a loading bay for three lorries, and has greatly eased the issue of congestion when receiving deliveries.”
Naturally, maintaining the standard and improving on what he has achieved has been critical for Tom, but since the challenges brought by covid across the retail industry, his focus was somewhat heightened.
“Covid was challenging in that we were one of the few industries actually going into work every day, it was a busy time. We had to navigate our way through staff sickness, stock shortages, covid controls etc, but the team all stepped up to the challenge and in fact, it was a very satisfying period albeit difficult.
“Since covid, we have had to deal with the staff shortages brought on by a combination of post-covid working practices and Brexit. Our goal has been to ensure we can recruit and retain good quality staff.
“In addition, with inflation running at such high levels, it has been challenging to ensure our products have been profitable yet affordable. We did absorb some of the costing, however to ensure a business runs successfully, we did have to increase many food items.
“Our main goal over the past few years is to get back to where we were before covid, to maintain steady trading, quality products, and adequate staffing.
“We have also been concerned with the extortionate price of fuel and energy. We carried out several changes to alleviate the situation. In hindsight, it has highlighted to us the necessity to use a variety of methods to control our energy outlay.
“A further goal which took a long time to develop, was the accurate labelling of products to include all ingredients on the label and highlighting the allergens. This has been necessary with the introduction of Natasha’s Law by the government.”
This commitment and desire to constantly improve and move forward has garnered much-deserved praise and reaped rewards for the Milestone, creating a destination store which is an essential part of the wider community.
“The success of the store is probably down to our ability to provide several services under one roof,” said Tom.
“We have provided a comfortable setting, offering a place to meet, greet, eat and shop. We have provided a social place for customers to enjoy. It has become the nucleus of the area and in addition, we support a huge amount of groups within our local community.”
Taking home the Food to Go Store of the Year award was particularly special for Tom and his staff, as they have become known far and wide for the range of their offering. It is a key USP for the store, making them stand out from many of their counterparts.
“Our food made right here in Milestone is unique to our store. The quality and freshness of the product and the competitive pricing ensure our customers keep coming back.
“We try to use as many local and fresh ingredients as possible and our team of chefs are always looking for new products to create. Unlike the major multiples, the lead time is very quick as we have a full team of production engineers, food technologists, chefs and catering staff ready to decide on the new products, including packing and labelling the products.”
Looking back to this year’s Neighbourhood Retailer Awards night, Tom said they were more than happy to have been nominated, adding they were all “genuinely shocked and surprised” to win.
“To win so many has given the team a great boost and morale and dedication is superb leading up to the Christmas rush,” he added.
One of the stand-out moments on the night was when Tom received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The 500-strong crowd all took to their feet as Tom approached the stage, giving the retailer extraordinaire a worthy standing ovation, something Tom described as “very overwhelming”.
“Over the years I have met many of the retailers from all around Northern Ireland. To be recognised for the award with such a calibre of retailers in the room was very special.
“Winning awards after all this time is still important to us. It lets you know you are still relevant within the industry, that you are still doing the right things and moving in the right direction. In fact, I could say that winning the recent awards actually means more than ever.”
ELEVATING THE INDUSTRY
Since the awards night, they have had a “great number of callers” to the store, both additional customers and other retailers from across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and even a retail group visiting from Scotland. Among independent retailers in NI, Tom is well known and respected for his willingness to show them around his store and encouraging them in their own stores, highlighting new machinery or ideas.
“My background in engineering has ensured I always have a great interest in machinery and production lines. I love to experiment with the latest machines and do enjoy demonstrating machines to other retailers.
“I am a member of the IROF retailer group and we travel around the world looking at shops and delving into how they carry out retailing. It is very prominent that shops in Ireland, both north and south, are amongst the highest standards of retailing in the world.
“We are continually looking for new innovations and ideas. I feel that good retailers learn from other good retailers and this elevates the industry, and I feel Bill Penton has helped keep retailers competitive with the annual awards.
“I would just like to thank all at Penton Publications for recognising all the hard work we at Milestone have done throughout the past number of years. It has been challenging, especially over the past few years, however at all times it has been so enjoyable.”
TO VIEW THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH TOM MCAVOY IN THE NOVEMBER-DECEMBER ISSUE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD RETAILER, CLICK HERE