Newly appointed Nigel Maxwell unveils his plans for Nisa in Northern Ireland
Neighbourhood Retailer meets Nigel Maxwell, who has just taken over as regional retail manager of Nisa’s chain of 106 accounts in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s independent grocery retailers are well ahead of their counterparts across the water when it comes to innovation and reinvention, according to Nisa’s new boss in Northern Ireland.
“It’s generally accepted that stores in Northern Ireland are seen as way ahead – anyone will tell you that they win more awards,” Nigel Maxwell says.
“Your typical convenience store will still be quite small and maybe won’t focus on food to go solutions – they’ll just look like a mini supermarket, whereas here you’ve got people doing exceptional stuff.”
It’s partly down to retailers here quickly adopting the latest market trends and also operating in a hugely competitive environment, he says.
“If you don’t raise your game, you won’t make it – it’s quite brutal and if you aren’t prepared to invest in your store and give a great offer, you’ll struggle because someone else down the street will do that, and customers will go to them.
“So it’s a great place to work in retail, because the retailers just drive you on all the time. You’re never able to sit back. There’s always somebody saying I want to do this or can I come and talk to you about that. It’s like ‘Brilliant, bring it on’.
Making a change
Nigel has worked for 17 years at Musgrave with previous stints at Sainsburys, Russells/Shop4You, Iceland and Dunnes Stores, but had been pondering whether to make a change when the opportunity to head up Nisa’s Northern Ireland operation came up.
“Through that time, I did various roles, ended up as sales director for the Supervalu and Centra brands and became part of the management team there. But it got to the point where I’m hitting 50 and I started thinking – is it time for a change?
“Then it’s 2021 and I started thinking about it again, thinking should I or shouldn’t I look to do something different, and we had conversations about it internally.
“I finished up on August 31, looking to take two or three months break just to see what was going on in the world – and by that stage the Nisa opportunity had come up.”
Nigel has been in retail since the age of 16 when he worked part time for Dunnes Stores in the Park Centre, moving on to become a trainee manager.
At the time Sainsbury’s were in the process of recruiting more than 2,000 people for their stores in England and Nigel headed for the bright lights of London.
“Sainsburys were very much about developing people and bringing all the colleagues on the journey with you, whereas Dunnes had their own style!,” he says.
“So I learned a lot by going to work for Sainsburys and I worked in a lot of different stores around London, and did that for four and a half years.”
Back to NI
It was there that Nigel met his wife Julie – even though she was from Bangor – and when the couple decided to return to Northern Ireland, he began working in Iceland in the early days of its arrival in Northern Ireland, before moving to Russells/Shop4You and finally Musgrave.
Northern Ireland’s grocery market has hugely changed over that time, he says.
“Customer shopping habits change every four or five years – the old days of going to your local supermarket on a Saturday with a trolley and buying £150 pounds’ worth – it’s not finished but it’s become a lot less.
“And therefore the smaller and medium sized convenience stores have really upped their game to cater for people’s different shopping needs, so people are quite happy to go two, three, four or five times a week and spend £10 or £20 pounds a time and buy fresh food that’s going to last for the next few days.
“People are still buying tins of soup, tins of beans, but they’re looking to buy much more fresh product. And on top of that, people generally want to buy local.
“Take-home meals barely existed 10 or 15 years ago, or they were horrible, but now you get proper dinners to take home, you’ve got stores employing chefs and kitchens at the back of the store, producing fresh, homemade food, so the quality really has improved.
“It’s driven by the consumer, because the consumer wants more fresh products that they can buy more regularly at a reasonable price locally made, and that’s what the retailers have reacted to.”
The arrival of the pandemic made for a stressful time for retailers, but also brought opportunities, he says.
“Overnight, everyone ran out of toilet roll and pasta – you could have sold those commodities 10 times over. The consumers’ reaction was to fill their cupboards with product because they were panic-buying.
“After the panic buying settled down, consumer behaviour changed drastically – now they’re going local, much more than they were before. Locally owned retailers found their business in some cases doubled or trebled, and we always thought at some point that’s going to go back to where it was pre-pandemic – but it hasn’t.
“So if you’re running a store with good standards and somebody is coming to you for their shopping which they never did before, they’ve liked what they’ve seen and realised they don’t need to go to the big out-of-town supermarket. So the bigger stores have lost some business and the smaller independently owned stores have gained some – that’s been a massive success and most of that has been held onto.”
With four months to himself ahead of starting the Nisa role in January 2022, Nigel has been able to work on the house and spend time with his family – as well as tackling the Belfast marathon.
“I’m glad it was moved to October as it gave me a chance to get ready for it. I run a bit anyway but I had to do a bit more to be ready for a marathon – and I did it. That was a great achievement.”
But that time has also given him the chance to think about what needed to be done first at Nisa. It’s quite a different model from Musgrave.
“With Nisa, you’ll have the support of the Nisa team but you’re also able to be flexible and that suits our entrepreneurial retailers. They have the freedom to work their model to maximise sales and profit,” Nigel says.
“So the typical Nisa retailer will be somebody who’s very hungry for a deal, has a good eye for an opportunity and will drive their business accordingly.”
Mapping the way
Nigel has mapped out his first three months, with meetings with Nisa and Co-Op colleagues for the first three weeks before heading out to visit the retailers and spend some quality time with each.
“I’ll be saying to them quite honestly tell me what’s working well and perhaps what’s not about Nisa – and I’ll take it away and distil it down. Once I’ve met everyone, I’ll be able to collate that into the priority things that I need to address. Then I’ll go back to the people I met in the first couple of weeks and say ‘Remember me, I need you to fix something for me!’.
“So by the end of the first three months if I have removed a number of pain-points and delivered some additional sales and profit to those retailers, then we’re starting to build a momentum in a positive way. All the retailers really want is to make a living and if you can allow them to do that, you’re onside.”
Delivering the goods
Many stores have their own delivery service in place which is working out really well for them but he’s also keen to encourage retailers to use the likes of Deliveroo and Just Eat more as they become more popular across the country.
“Offering a delivered service is a big opportunity; customers want product and they want it fast. At the start of the pandemic, we thought it was a temporary thing, people ringing up a shop that was maybe a mile away and ordering a bottle of Coke, or ice cream or a few sausage rolls!
“Take that right down through local communities and there are people who maybe don’t want to go out so they’ll ring the store and say ‘can you drop this down to me’.”
Many of Northern Ireland’s Nisa retailers have done well during the pandemic and have reinvested that profit back into the store, Nigel says.
“I’ll be encouraging any of our retailers who haven’t invested to reinvest in their store, keep ahead of the competition, keep reinventing yourself, go again, keep putting out more fresh product and that way we’ll keep ahead of the competition,” he pledges.
To read the full interview in the Neighbourhood Retailer yearbook, click HERE.