The future of retail

Fresh Food Eco Centre

Michael Johnston celebrates fresh beginnings as he juggles the launch of a new concept store in Castlewellan while stepping onto the Food Force Ireland board.

When Neighbourhood Retailer speaks to Michael Johnston, director of the Fresh Food Centre stores, he is preparing to unveil a brand-new, eco-friendly site in Castlewellan. Minimising the need for plastic packaging, customers will be able to choose their shopping from a range of loose products including fruit and vegetables, home bakery, nuts, coffee, and much more. A more environmentally friendly Freor refrigeration system has also been installed underpinning the energy efficiency of the whole store.

Having been a Food Force Ireland (FFI) member for over 15 years, Michael reports that the support that trading controller, Debra Johnston, and FFI overall, have given him with the new store has been instrumental to setting up the launch day.

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“The FFI partnership really excels because you have that local link,” says Michael. “The support FFI has given me you don’t get from anywhere else.”

Local suppliers have been providing prizes and pitching in with the celebrations, ensuring the grand opening on September 14 is a huge success with the locals.

“One of the biggest advantages of being a FFI  member is being able to stay independent and do bespoke deals for your own operations. Having autonomy with your suppliers means that when you need them they are there,” says Michael.

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Similarly, the arrangement is also advantageous for the supplier. As an organisation, FFI gives power to its members to deal with local suppliers directly, often securing better deals for the retailer and a direct link to the shop floor for the supplier.

“FFI is probably the quickest way for any supplier to get a product onto the shelves,” explains Michael. “They don’t have to go through boards or have lengthy discussions with the buyer of a group about whether the product will be stocked or not. FFI members can make decisions quickly and we’re probably the first to market with a lot of new products.”

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FFI’s annual Direct Trade Supply Exhibition, taking place on September 24, is always a highlight for its members. Every year Michael brings all of his store managers and head of departments to really get a sense for what is going on in the marketplace.

“I like to take them so they get to know all the suppliers directly,” he says. “It’s a great way of seeing new products and finding out what is happening in the trade. Our managers have their finger on the pulse as to what will sell in our operations and if they see something that they believe will work we can have that in our stores very quickly.”

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Joining the FFI board in 2019, Michael has many new ideas to share with FFI members.

“The changes to the board this year have been described as the ‘changing of the guard’, which in some ways reflect the current transformation going on in independent retail.  I believe what we are doing in the new store in Castlewellan is the future of retail and we have much to educate ourselves and our customers on how to shop more sustainably. I hope to roll the new concept out in year two and three in other stores and FFI will be a fundamental part of that,” concludes Michael.


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