The secret is actually listening to the customer: Raymond Millar of The Butchers Monkstown
As Raymond Millar sr retires from the butchers’ shop he founded 23 years ago, his son Raymond jr is searching for a new staff member to replace him behind the counter at The Butchers Monkstown.
Twenty-three years ago, when Raymond Millar sr opened his own butcher’s shop in Monkstown, his first customer was Mandy Sloane.
And now as he retires, she is set to be his last customer as well.
His son Raymond jr explains: “Dad is retiring on April 3 – he started the shop in September 1998 which is nearly 24 years ago.
“Now that Dad is retiring, we have asked Mandy if she can come and be his last customer.
“After 20 years, his customers are not just customers – they’re like friends that he’s got to know on a deeper level.”
Father and son
For most of those years, The Butchers Monkstown was run just by father and son, and now Raymond jr is faced with trying to find a new employee to replace his dad.
“I’m flying solo at the moment until I find the right next person to come into the business. It needs to be someone who will get on well with the customers,” Raymond says.
“So I’m looking for someone, not to fill his boots but to be a replacement. But as my Dad says ‘You’ll never get anybody else like me!’”
Raymond jr says that when his dad left school he had wanted to become a joiner but when the opportunity to become an apprentice butcher came up, he decided it was the next best thing.
For years, he worked for other butchers but when his son was 16, a nearby shop became available and the pair went down to have a look at it.
“”He asked would I come down and have a wee look, so he brought me down here. It was a bit of father and son bonding and he asked me what I thought,” Raymond jr says.
“I was all for it. It’s quite a big step to do something like that, but the shop was vacant and he thought he might as well go for it now.
“I would go and help him on Saturdays and take two buses down from where we lived in Lisburn. Then when I left school I came on board to give him a bit of a hand and now I’ve been with him for 23 years. It’s been a rollercoaster!”
In recent years dad-of-three Raymond jr has taken over the day to day running of the shop, while his wife Laura has been responsible for the less hand-on aspects.
“She’s doing the social media, the app, the website – she does the Facebook page for me as well as the books. She would be my backbone there behind me and it’s nice to have someone like that in your back pocket!” he says.
“She doesn’t tell me how to cut a bit of meat and I don’t tell her how to do the books!”
Raymond says that back when his dad started the shop it was very traditional, with people choosing steaks and entrees from an open display, but nowadays far more of the product is pre-packed in response to customer demand.
“Another thing that I’ve noticed is that more or less people don’t like to socialise – they just want to come in and get three for £10 and walk out the door.
“So they like 3 for £10 offers, anything pre-wrapped, anything on offer – people want a wee bargain and it’s nice to give back to the people who are coming in and supporting you.
“You’re trying to keep everything as cheap as possible, but you are there to run a business.”
The other big change is the digital presence, including the app and the website.
“Compared to 15 years ago, that is completely different. People are ordering through the app either for collection or delivery. There are lots of different ways to get in touch with the shops, whether through Facebook, through the app, or though the website. It’s getting on there to let people know what we’re trying to do.”
Raymond says the shop isn’t big enough to extend, so the only way to evolve is to change the products and how they’re presented.
“It’s the same products, but really offered in a different way,” he says.
“Many people don’t know how to cook now – so we’ll offer a way to cook in a bag or a tray that you can put in the oven for 40 minutes. But before we put out all these offers, we’ll listen to the customers to find out what they want, and what will make it easier for them.
“We’re also getting people who are now very passionate about cooking and they will talk about the rubs and the glazes and the salt roasts and the marinades. When it comes to barbecuing, we sell a lot of big ribs and steaks and burgers when the weather is good.
“It’s amazing how people are going from can’t-cook to relishing cooking.”
The shop has also teamed up with Good Food Yard to offer healthy ready meals, one of the biggest trends in butchery at the moment.
“It’s a healthy product that we get in, for the convenience for people who want to eat healthily. They’re calorie-counted so it’s earlier for customers to work out the calories,” Raymond says.
“I would like to do more things like that – more ready meals that are all prepared and done, so that things like stir fries are done and prepped and it would be much easier for them.”
When the pandemic arrived in Northern Ireland, business was going through a quiet spell post Christmas 2019, Raymond says.
Many of the smaller fruit shops and bakeries in the areas had also closed as a result of competition from the multiples, he says.
“I think people’s buying habits were starting to change a bit,” Raymond says.
But the pandemic had a noticeable impact on business, especially as many of the supermarket customers were reluctant to do their usual shop in a crowded supermarket.
“I would say our trade easily doubled – it was scary how busy it got. We had to do shorter hours and open from 9am to 4pm only, because there would have been a queue of 15 people in the mornings before we opened,” he says.
“So we would have closed at 4pm to give me that extra hour and a half to get the shop cleaned down and sanitised for the next day.”
They also found themselves selling some items that they would never have expected to sell in a butcher’s shop, thanks to customer demand – for example, toilet paper and pizza bases.
“This was all due to demand from local people who didn’t feel safe enough to go to the supermarket and would have asked for particular things. We only did it for people who were coming in and asking me for particular items and we wanted to help,” Raymond says.
“We always want to go the extra mile, and everything that people asked for, we were able to service. We try to go that extra mile and hopefully people will remember it. The secret is listening to what the customer and finding out what they want, not what I want to give them.”
The shop had never offered deliveries before, but launched a new service during the pandemic as well as setting up the website and app.
Before they had the app, they were getting orders in from the email, WhatsApp and other messaging services and the new app made it all much easier to manage
“We want to get something in place that would make it much easier for us,” Raymond says.
“It also helped the business with being able to order stock in for the week ahead.”
He says he tried to be there for the customers at a difficult time by offering the new delivery service.
“I tried to do it on the day that they wanted, perhaps on the way home from work, but if not, I delivered when I could and people have been very accommodating.
“Deliveries have definitely slackened a good bit now, but a lot of people are ordering on the app and collecting their orders, and it helps them to see what else I have, although I don’t have everything on the site.”
It was Laura’s idea for the family to move to Newtownabbey in recent months, and it means Raymond no longer has to undertake the lengthy daily trek from their hometown of Lisburn.
“We’re now living in the area where I work and I’m 100% glad that I’ve done it. Now I’m taking my daughter to school in Newtownabbey every day,” Raymond says.
“The community here sees me living in the area and calling in for a Chinese on a Saturday night and it’s nice to bump into customers and for them all to see that side to me.
“It’s good to be able to give the shop 100% with living over here.”
Raymoond emphasises that everything in the shop is locally sourced.
“Everything’s bought on the doorstep and you’re getting it from the supplier down the road. The beef is from Crumlin, the pork is from Portrush, the chicken fillets are from Randalstown – we buy local to make it easier for ourselves.”
Five year wish list
As for planning for the future, Raymond has already raced through his five-year wish list in the last three years because of the innovations he needed to deal with the pandemic.
“There was the van, the app, the website. My next wish is to change the shop around, get some new counters and change a lot of the shop to make it an easier and better shopping experience for the customer,” he says.
“When people come in, everything will be pre-wrapped with an easier flow of layout. If people are coming in for a piece of sirloin, it will now be pre-packed, labelled with details of the date it has to be used by, and sold alongside the pepper sauce. We want to try to flip things around so that it’s easier for customers to pick this, this and this.”
Raymond has noticed that customers are increasingly chatting when they come in, asking what to use and how to cook it, so he has invested in a labelling till that prints labels, not only listing allergens but also with cooking instructions and use-by dates.
“It’s much easier for customers to take the product home, with the cooking instructions so that they know everything 100%,” he says.
“It’s nice to support the community because they’ve been behind us for 24 years – you only get back what you put into it.”