Swifts Lisnaskea: setting standards in excellence

Swifts Lisnaskea: setting standards in excellence
Sandra Quigley and Stephen Swift, co-owners of Swifts Lisnaskea.

Since taking over a small forecourt and shop in 1997, Stephen Swift and his sister Sandra Quigley have grown the business significantly, now running three stores including an impressive 11,300 sq ft complex in Lisnaskea. As Stephen explains to NR, there is plenty more still to come for Swifts stores.

From small, humble beginnings, siblings and business partners Stephen and Sandra now lead an award-winning business, with notable success at the recent Maxol Excellence Awards, at which they won the ‘Excellence in Standards’ Award. Previous award wins include the prestigious Retailer of the Year Award at the Neighbourhood Retailer Awards and last year they took home the Northern Ireland up to 4mlpa Award from the Forecourt Trader Awards in London.

Stephen and Sandra first moved into the retail sector in 1997 taking over the reigns from their father Philip when they acquired a site with a Shell shop, including a forecourt and associated shop, about 900 sq ft in size in Lisnaskea. After successfully running it for a few years, they decided to carry out a total site redevelopment in 1999-2000, subsequently opening as one of the first independent SuperValu stores in Northern Ireland at the time.

Stephen told NR they traded “very successfully” for a number of years before another opportunity presented itself.

“In 2015 an opportunity came up where we acquired further ground on site that give us the chance to expand the business and put in a new forecourt,” said Stephen. “In 2015 we joined the Henderson Group, becoming a Eurospar.”

Following a total rebuild with a new forecourt introduced, Swifts Eurospar Lisnaskea now stands at 11,300 sq ft and boasts some of the top retail services and offerings, including a butchery concession, bakery, ice cream parlour and Subway.

“We have everything you expect to find in a large independent supermarket,” said Stephen.

“We have our own take home meal offering, Good Mood Food and we can proudly say our fresh food offering is outstanding, we have a very high fresh food participation across the store and this key department is growing all the time.”

With an expansive footprint and sizeable ground space, Swifts have been able to bring on board a host of products supplied by local producers and growers.

“From bakery to butchery, fruit and veg, there is something from pretty much everyone in the local area, right down to the egg suppliers,” said Stephen. “Our store is a community hub and supporting  local is what it’s all about.

“One of our USPs is our hot food, our store is very well known throughout the country for our expansive daily hot food offering. We have a fantastic facility and a great external seating areas, great car parking, free wifi and customer toilets including baby changing room. We have a great facility for anyone on the road who needs to stop off, refresh and refuel.

“Barista Bar coffee from Hendersons is also a great crowd pleaser, I think it is one of the best coffees on the go anywhere on the island. We also have Freal milkshakes, Fwip & Swishee, all fantastic customer self-service concepts.

“Our Subway performs fantastically well and really compliments our own food offering, as it’s a different concept for the customer and provides something for everyone.

“Our off licence is a very important department for us, were very proud of our offering and we carry a huge range premium of whiskeys and spirits and craft beers. Over the years we have built a strong reputation for sourcing premium products, and we now have a significant number of regulars who receive advanced notice on new and exclusive product launches that might be of interest to them,” Stephen added.

‘We can proudly say our fresh food offering is outstanding, we have a very high fresh food participation across the store and this key department is growing all the time’

Stephen and Sandra rebranded the forecourt with Maxol coming on board in 2022. Maxol was always a feature in the town, and Stephen said it was a natural fit for a Maxol forecourt to be brought back to the area.

“It’s definitely a good company with a quality fuel brand and their message has worked well for us. We have noticed an increase in our fuel sales, and they have a very strong fuel card business, for company drivers, school buses and corporate clients and that has been beneficial to us.

“We had a fantastic night at the Maxol Excellence Awards, it was our first awards with them and we were delighted with our win, hopefully it is the start of many more to come with them,” he added.

(from left) Norman Graham (Maxol), Stephen Swift and Sandra Quigley.

The Maxol Excellence Awards returned for the first time since 2019, promoting excellence in station and store standards, customer experience and community engagement throughout its network of service stations across the island of Ireland.

They are designed to recognise the exceptional efforts made by Maxol Independent Licensees, Independent Dealers and their staff and are assessed through regular store audits, mystery shopper visits and reviews of each store’s local community engagement – rewarding retailers who are “at the heart of it” in their local communities and have run special initiatives for Maxol’s Charity partner, Aware NI.

Swifts Lisnaskea was recognised for its best-in-class offer that provides the local community and a large passing trade with a huge offering of hot food to go, an extensive deli, Barista Bar coffee and a Subway. Completing the award-winning offer are outstanding customer facilities including a large car park, a parent and baby changing room and customer toilets.

CEO of The Maxol Group, Brian Donaldson was full of praise for Stephen and Sandra and the whole team at Swifts.

“Setting and maintaining the highest of standards is critical to the success of any business. It’s therefore a genuine pleasure for myself and the team at Maxol to recognise and reward the hard work of our retailers and their staff, who continuously provide outstanding levels of service to their customers and their communities,” said Brian Donaldson.

“It is great recognition for Darren Given (Store Manager) and our team,” said Stephen. “We have three stores with over 140 people local people employed and these awards are recognition for all of them.

“You cannot operate without good people and we are very lucky in that respect. Our staff are well known in the community and that is a big draw for our customers when they see familiar faces when they come into the shop.”

However, despite this, Stephen said one of the main challenges they faced in the business was bringing in new people to the industry. “Our biggest issue is getting manpower, be it chefs, sales assistants or duty managers, this remains a big challenge for everyone in our sector.”

Having established the Lisnaskea store, Swifts branched out acquiring a neighbourhood Spar store in Roslea in 2007. At just under 4000 sq ft, Stephen describes it as a “very good community supermarket”, managed by Helena.

“It has hot food and deli counters, an off licence and a Post Office, it really has everything there for a very rural community. We pride ourselves on giving an extensive range for a small village.”

Continuing their expansion, Swifts acquired another store in Lisnaskea in August 2021, presently a Spar store with a Circle K forecourt, approximately 2800 sq ft in size.

Given their successful ventures and developments over the years, Stephen has his eye on the future with a business plan earmarked for this second Lisnaskea store.

“There is a huge opportunity there for future development. It is a very successful store as it stands, but it needs modernisation. We are looking at opportunities and concepts and potentially an expansion in the next 12 months.”

Naturally, with store modernisation comes an increasing use of technology and IT systems, which are major game-changers in the convenience sector.

“Technology is moving one way only and it’s all about efficiencies in terms of what is happening on the shop floor,” said Stephen.

“We have self-checkouts and Hendersons have introduced ASR (automatic stock replenishment), which will also be introduced into our other two stores before the end of the year.

“We are also bringing in digital bar codes. This will free up manpower and allow us to focus on areas of the store.”

‘You cannot operate without good people and we are very lucky in that respect. Our staff are well known in the community and that is a big draw for our customers’

Inevitably, Swifts has been left facing increasing energy costs, like so many other retailers and businesses, seeing their bills double, but are making continued efforts to manage costs where possible.

“Everybody knows the challenge with energy costs spiralling and it has been hard to handle over the last year,” said Stephen.

“We have done everything we can in store in terms of making efficiencies, using solar power, efficient air conditioning, LED lighting and we have energy efficient refrigeration.

“When this started it spiralled out of control and it’s something we have had to carry and factor in, but there is no doubt it’s a huge burden on any business.

Stephen Swift with Darren Given, store manager.

“We have a supermarket price file and Tesco price match and that means we are also competitive. We provide a competitive price model. We are a community supermarket facility with a very good pricing structure, but there is no doubt there has been food inflation across the board.

“Customers are very savvy and it’s in nobody’s interests to look at this as an opportunity to increase prices, our customers will not forget that in the long run.

“There is no doubt that we have a lot of customers who shop regularly and shop more often. We have a great supply from Hendersons and we have six days a week delivery of fresh food. This means that our availability and product freshness is first class across the week.

“The customer can come back whenever they need something and it helps minimise their our own food waste. The consumer can also take the opportunity to buy more often and get what they need as opposed to what they think they need.

“We are here seven days a week, and many of our customers are our friends. Working in the local community is a very social job but not without its challenges, particularly during covid.

“We managed to maintain availability and a safe shopping environment and our customers appreciated that. Our team was brilliant throughout that difficult time.

“Here at Swifts we really enjoy serving our local community on a daily basis – that’s what gives you that buzz.”