Mulkerns EUROSPAR – How Mulkerns is trailblazing the sustainability message – and putting it all in to practice in-store
It’s been 45 years since Paul Mulkern established Mulkerns Spar in 1976 but the world has changed massively since then. Ironically, it could be turning full circle.
We hear a lot of talk these days about the circular economy and why retailers need to embrace it. Mulkerns has completely signed up to its responsibilities to the local community, the world and future generations by driving forward its in-store offerings and options to save packaging and help customers to play their part too.
Store manager Aaron McGuigan explained.
“We have plenty of plans for the future – particularly around sustainability. We are looking in to developing our refill section to create a Zero Waste hub. The in-store eco detergents and household liquids are already selling well.
“Via in-store point of sale we are also encouraging customers to bring their Tupperware to the store for salads and deli products. We are trying to make our customers more aware and they are responding to it – anything from the deli can be put in to the customer’s own containers” said Aaron.
“In fact we would probably be at the forefront of this. We are particularly environmentally aware. We ditched plastic cutlery recently and we started using paper straws a few years ago. I like to think we are influencing others.
Zero Waste Wednesdays
“We make the most of our social media channels to do this – for example, we run Zero Waste Wednesdays.
“The idea was that we would run a weekly blog introducing our customers to a new sustainable initiative in our store each week, thus creating a social media diary of our work on environmental sustainability. Our tagline for the campaign was “Little changes make a big difference” The weekly blog ran on our Facebook and Instagram pages through posts and stories. We ran this every Wednesday. Lisa Mulkern does an amazing job looking after our Social Media.
“Once this was launched, we committed to posting an initiative each week. It motivated us to keep introducing new sustainable measures and products that we could introduce on a weekly basis. People came to expect it.
“We built a portfolio of sustainable measures through our weekly Zero Waste Wednesday blog and received excellent feedback” said Aaron.
Examples of Zero Waste Wednesday initiatives include an effort to remove plastic from the fruit and vegetable aisle.
“We are proud to say that almost 80% of our fruit and veg products are now on our shelves naked!”
Mulkerns purchased and commissioned Solar PV Panels.
“Even on the dullest of days these generate electricity from a fully renewable source and reduce our carbon footprint” said Aaron.
Mulkerns has sourced and introduced compostable packaging for its butchery products; sourced compostable ‘Vegware’ packaging for salads and introduced a ‘Refill Station’ for cleaning products and for health and beauty products.
“The products are all derived from plant extracts and based on biodegradable and non-hazardous ingredients” said Aaron.
“We’ve also introduced a range of spring water in fully biodegradable containers.”
Customers are encouraged to fill tea and coffee into their own reusable cup. This is also incentivised with a discount to customers using their own cup.
Mulkerns has also introduced biodegradable gloves for filling fuel on our forecourt; introduced a range of biodegradable toothbrushes and toothpaste, plus a range of Enviroware straws which are compostable, recyclable and free from wax coating.”
Small changes, big difference
“Sometimes these can seem like small changes but they make a difference, show leadership and initiative, which customers are definitely appreciating” said Aaron.
“We’ve installed ‘napkin dispensers’ which dispense only one napkin at a time to reduce paper waste, sourced and introduced our own range of branded reusable bags and we actively discourage the use of single use shopping bags by offering customers use of our old boxes instead.”
It’s not only on the shop floor that the sustainability lifestyle is taking over – even the backroom functions are fully signed up to playing their part.
“We’ve introduced a paperless office system in our offices and introduced new digital screens in store to replace the need for paper posters.
“We’ve reduced paper waste by checking if customers want a receipt before printing.”
It’s really a very impressive list of real and meaningful efforts made on the part of Mulkerns and the whole team to play their part in reducing waste, and promoting good practices instore and out.
“We introduced a full range of organic and sustainably produced grocery items – we have control systems in place to ensure that our food waste is actively monitored by management and kept to a minimum.
“We donate Fresh Produce which is coming close to its use-by date to local charities on a regular basis. We recycle our waste oil and our cardboard waste is compacted using specialised equipment on site. This is then collected and taken for recycling.
“We are proud to say that we have removed over one million single use plastic bags from our store annually.”
As if that’s not enough. Mulkerns has introduced the ‘Gander’ App for reducing and communicating short-dated fresh deals to customers.
The retailer also introduced the new and innovative ‘Green Cube’ range of cleaning products, supplied by a local young entrepreneur.
“Essentially this product replaces a bottle of cleaning fluid with one dissolvable cube,” said Aaron. “It is easier to store and transport, uses a reusable container, is a sustainable product and kind to the environment.
“We talk to our customers and ask them what they think of what we are doing with regards to sustainability. We engage with followers on social media, listen to what people are saying in local facebook groups such as “NI Journey to Zero Waste“. We take on board comments then work to keep innovating in terms of sustainability.
“We measured the success of our Zero Waste Wednesday Campaign by analysing sales of the relevant products following a post regarding that product. We could clearly see from our sales figures that we were really getting attention as sales would increase within a couple of days and this trend would continue.
“Our staff also got behind the campaign too, believing in our objectives. Each week in our staff newsletter we introduced the upcoming Zero Waste Wednesday campaign to our team, so they were aware of it and were able to answer any customer queries that arose. In addition, our team actively works to minimise waste, encouraging the use of reusable bags, boxes and containers and always suggesting the sustainable alternatives to customers where possible.”
As a next step and when society begins to re-open safely, Mulkerns plan to take their campaign commitments to supplier level, sourcing and visiting sustainable suppliers and videoing their sustainable practices for our customers to watch across the social media channels.
“We also are currently working with a local community group to tackle roadside waste and have sponsored signs to be placed on local roads encouraging people to dispose of their waste responsibly” added Aaron.
“As a business we are committed to reducing single use plastic, reducing waste, encouraging use of reusable and refillable containers and reducing our energy use.
“We work with local schools and community groups to promote sustainability and assist them in their efforts to do the same. We recently launched a campaign with five local schools called ‘Ready Steady Grow’ giving every family a Free grow pack complete with seeds, pots and compost and broadcasting planting tutorials on our social media to support this.
“Sustainability is a key priority for our business and we believe it goes hand in hand with our community ethos.
Originally known simply as ‘Paul’s’, it was one of the first stores to offer much needed convenience and choice to the local community near Newry town as it was then (now of course, Newry city).
Paul’s values of quality and freshness, shaped by his many years as Area Manager for Liptons (covering the entire Island of Ireland), and his friendly community ethos have shaped the business into what it is today – a large, thriving EUROSPAR. However, 45 years on, quality, freshness and community are still the central focus of business for Mulkerns.
Paul wanted to have a store that would act as a social hub for the surrounding area. That shop has grown to become the hub of the community.
The Mulkerns directors – the children of the founder – are still very much involved on a daily basis, including Terry Mulkerns with his Managerial expertise, Mairead leading the way in the Fresh Produce Department and Ciaran overseeing New Developments.
There are even members of the third generation involved, with Mairead’s daughter now managing the new Mulkerns SPAR in nearby Jonesborough.
Aaron, ironically, has gone full circle in his career with the family business. Now aged 34, he started out at Mulkerns when he was just 16 as a stockroom assistant – then a career with Tesco beckoned which saw him undertaking managerial roles in Tesco Express on Belfast’s Dublin, Ormeau and University Roads, before moving south to work for Tesco there.
Having made the move from a large supermarket multiple, to a new managerial role in independent retailing, Aaron took up the reins in December 2019 – just before Covid hit.
Baptism of fire
“It was a baptism of fire. No one knew what it would mean – but we adapted swiftly, making the most of technology available to us. Electronic labelling instore meant we could limit staff on the floor.
“We introduced the appetite app – which allowed an online click and collect service and home delivery within 20 miles.
However one of the outstanding outcomes of the pandemic was the off sales – as people had no choice but to imbibe at home.
“Off sales have boomed” said Aaron. “We developed a website for online orders www.mulkernswines.com and it’s totally taken off – we have orders from all over Ireland now. We started a wine club and that’s been massively successful already. This time last year we hadn’t even thought of doing this.”
While the off sales at Mulkerns has been operating for around five years, the new website only got up and running a few months ago. The new manager, Sean Bennett, bringing a background as a publican, the wine is literally flying off the shelves – with constant repeat custom using the online function.
“He writes excellent descriptions of all the wines, bringing his knowledge to the website and running a Wine of the Week promotion. Technology has really enabled us to widen the market.”
‘Small Independent SPAR’ to multi-award winning supermarket
What just started out as a small independent SPAR shop is now a major community supermarket.
In 2018 the EUROSPAR scooped the Award for ‘Community Supermarket of The Year’, and in June 2019, Mulkerns was crowned ‘Northern Ireland’s Best Convenience Store by Retail NI.
The store has gone through half a dozen redevelopments in the past 45 years.
In 2017, 2,000 square feet of retail space was added to the premises – including a fully stocked off licence, the new bakery and florist – which increased footfall massively.
“We also redeveloped our entire fresh food and food-to-go offering.”
Staying a step ahead
To fend off the onslaught of discounters and super-sized supermarkets in Newry and surrounding area, Mulkerns has to strive to be one step ahead of the competition – with its strong community ethos clearly giving it the differential.
One differential from working for Tesco to working for an independent is the freedom to devise promotions and community initiatives.
“With Tesco, all the promotions were dictated or pre-determined. I like having more of a free rein.”
There’s also the added benefit of living just a few minutes from the store.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle now. I knew the character of the area and the store when I applied. I knew the staff and the customers, I knew that Mulkerns had a particularly good reputation – and that I’d be just a few minutes from home.
“What I didn’t know was that Covid was coming down the line – but I think we have coped brilliantly and really bent over backwards to do the best for our customers. For elderly or vulnerable people who can’t or don’t do online shopping – we’ll even give them a call if we haven’t heard from them for a few days. That’s true customer service.
Mulkerns, with its extensive fresh produce section, the in-store butchery (which has thrived throughout Covid with people going back to scratch cooking at home), the busy Post Office, off sales – but the star of the show must surely be the deli and food-to-go counters – with its “Eat well, feel well” section, brainchild of Kelly McKeown General Manager and Head Chef Devin McShane.
“You can buy five nutritionally balanced meals for £20 – that’s a great deal.
“The carvery has been a major success story too. We are now doing over 700 Sunday dinners from the carvery. People order their meals online and then just come at their allotted time to pick them up from the hatch – which also saves queuing.
“It runs like clockwork and the dinners are delicious.
Although Covid has thrown up all sorts of challenges, it also brought opportunities to undertake projects sooner than anticipated.
“We have so many exciting plans for the future” said Aaron. “We are a thriving, busy EUROSPAR that’s at the heart of the community. Paul Mulkerns would be very proud of what his SPAR Shop has become.”