Top trading standards at Henderson Group
While 2022 brought its challenges for the sector, continued investment and an efficient business model ensured success was delivered for Henderson Group, Sales and Marketing Director, Paddy Doody tells NR.
While the wholesale and retail company has been an early adopter of new tech, the arrival of Covid meant they had to pivot quickly and start pushing out new ways of doing things that had been in the pipeline.
Marking over 120 years in business, Henderson’s retain a deep sense of pride in being a family-run Northern Ireland business, headed by brothers Martin and Geoffrey Agnew.
As the number one convenience store and small supermarket brand in Northern Ireland, the Group is the biggest player in terms of store numbers, boasting some 500 stores. With a mix of company-owned and independent retailers, the SPAR brand is “by far the strongest brand in consumers’ eyes” says Sales and Marketing Director, Paddy Doody.
“We have brilliant examples of great stores in almost every town and village in Northern Ireland, we have a very strong spread of stores and our ethos is, and always will be, to reinvest in our businesses,” said Paddy.
Their independent retailers are the bulk of the Henderson Group business, while their company-owned stores make up approximately a fifth and collectively they reported a 10.9% increase on a like-for-like basis in their Christmas trading figures.
‘The SPAR brand is by far the strongest brand in consumers’ eyes’
While Paddy said they are “really pleased with that performance” he issued it with an air of caution, stressing that inflation has to be taken into consideration.
“Food inflation was reported to be as high as 14% for the month of December, so it’s not real volume growth. I will be honest, we are seeing a softening in our volumes, but a big increase in our turnover.”
It is those immediate, well-documented challenges that Henderson’s and so many others are facing.
“The headwinds we are being confronted with – heat, light, electricity costs, wage costs, are all linked to the impact of inflation. The war in Ukraine, which has created both political and economic instability, all has an impact on consumer sentiment.
“So therefore, across the board, consumers are a little more anxious than we were seeing before, a bit more uncertain and therefore a bit more discerning in their spending.
“Those are the things that are concerning us as a business, that those headwinds are front and centre and that will be across every sector and every business.
“That’s not including the uncertainty the impact of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol has been causing. The political landscape in Northern Ireland is deeply troubling as a business. Our views as a Group reflect those of the CBI, of which we’re a member, that clearly it needs to be sorted and we need an Executive back up and running.
“They need to get their differences sorted out and as a business, we are apolitical. We’re very clear that NI needs an Executive running, decisions made by the people of NI for the people of NI. But at the moment, it’s just not acceptable the current situation we’re in and have been in for many, many months.
“We’re hoping that a new focus on that by both the UK Government and the EU will yield some results here and allow us in Northern Ireland to go forward.”
‘INVESTING IN A STRONG SECTOR’
That being said, Paddy highlighted there are still many things to be positive about.
“We operate in a very strong sector – food and retail is a robust industry. While it’s not immune at all from economic downturn, we do operate in a sector where people have to buy food and eat.
“We do, however have to have an efficient business model and do have to continue to invest in the business. As a business we have done that in spades over the last number of years and continue to do so.
“We are planning big investments in 2023 and have a capital programme of over £60 million that we will invest in our company-owned stores and in partnership with our independent retailers.
“We are a successful, independent, family-run, family-owned business and we have an ethos and culture of continual reinvestment to drive the business; and that’s about partnering with our independent retailers, investing in their business, investing in new stores, investing in promotional and price activity to give better value to the shopper, and investing in our infrastructure.
“In the past five years we have invested around £40m at the site in Mallusk. We’ve built new warehouses, we acquired land to build a new warehouse back in 2017-2018 and new offices which were about a £3m spend in 2018.”
While continuing to invest in both the wholesale and retail levels of the business, Paddy added they are continuing to focus on the food service side of the company as well.
“It operates on the whole island of Ireland and would have been hit very badly during covid lockdowns with bars and hotels closed, schools and restaurants closed, so their business dropped massively over that period,” he said.
“The good thing is that in 2022 our food service business has bounced back very, very strongly. We finished the year with a significant increase of 40% on 2021.
“Our NI business has recovered very well and our Republic of Ireland business is coming back very strongly. Though there are still a lot of challenges from a food service point of view, particularly with Brexit and supply chains and we have the other issues with the cost-of-living crisis and high inflation, wages costs etc.”
No stranger to winning awards, the Henderson Group enjoyed another strong year of performances in 2022. They saw their retailers collect a host of awards at the 2022 Neighbourhood Retailer Awards, most notably the hat-trick of awards taken home by brothers Jonathan and Terry McCullagh, including the Retailer of the Year title for their Omagh store, McCullagh’s SPAR Classic Service Station. The brothers also claimed the Forecourt of the Year category and Food to Go Store of the Year titles on the night.
Other winning stores last October included JC Stewart EUROSPAR Foodhall, Lynch’s EUROSPAR Skeoge, Creightons SPAR, Blacks Road and SPAR Maxol Service Station at Cherryvalley.
“Throughout the UK we have performed very strongly, for example we picked up 13 awards at the Retail Industry Awards. Not only does it include other symbol groups in the UK, but it also includes Aldi, Lidl, Tesco, Morrisons and so on. For us to go between our company-owned stores and our independent stores and pick up that many awards was absolutely exceptional. Mulkerns EUROSPAR in Newry is a real award-winning store and picked up a host of awards last year too.
“Also at the Grocer Gold Awards, Henderson Retail won Independent Retail Chain of the Year again last year, which is the third time we’ve won it in five years.”
While the last few years have brought new and unprecedented challenges for the country, Paddy was keen to sing the praises of all Henderson employees.
“During Covid, all our stores remained open, all our independent retailers’ stores were open, we had a warehouse distribution facility with drivers and pickers that never stopped. In fact, our business took a huge increase in business over that period and we have retained that level of business.
“We took a step increase in our business and I put that down to shoppers who hadn’t normally used our stores coming to us and they realised that SPAR and EUROSPAR stores and supermarkets have got better and are closer to home – locality is a value that shone through during those tough lockdown months. Shoppers saw the range of services, the fresh and locally sourced products, the local butcheries, the Barista Bar coffee offering and the year-round value on local products and big brands.
“I would definitely pay tribute to our retail teams and our warehouse and delivery teams who worked right throughout the pandemic, they are absolute heroes as far as I’m concerned in terms of what they did,” he said.
“From a charity perspective, our retailers are brilliant working with our chosen charities, which are Marie Curie for SPAR, Cancer Fund for Children for our larger format EUROSPAR and ViVOXTRA stores, Age NI with ViVO and our corporate charity partner for Henderson Group is Action Mental Health. Our ethos is to always engage with charities and raise funds to support their important work and services, and we have raised £1million for our charity partners in 2022.”
The pandemic ultimately changed the shopping habits of consumers, with many avoiding the larger stores and wanting to stay closer to home, and Paddy said this is a continued trend as they face new challenges, including the rising cost of groceries and utilities.
“Local shoppers are asking for more, we have invested a lot in market research and focus groups, asking shoppers what they want. What they want at the moment is value, it is that simple, they just want value.
“But value is not just about the price, it also includes your time, which is valuable. It’s quicker for you to go to your nearest SPAR or EUROSPAR than it is to go to an out-of-town multiple, so that value will be an element of convenience.
“It also comes down to your own personal ethos, you might want to support local businesses. A local shopper will say ‘I want to support someone I know so that the money is invested back into the facilities, so they continue to have a fantastic store, but also invested back into those local employees in their local neighbourhood’.
“Shoppers are looking for that all-round value, they want to go into the store and get in and get out fairly easily, it’s about parking, it’s trying to hit a number of shopping missions in one.
“The consumer mindset is quite complex and quite varied, people are quite different. We’ll try and categorise them as much as possible, but we are in an era of personalisation in many respects.
“We have a very strong SPAR brand representation throughout the range. You will see that that area of the business is growing faster than other areas. Shoppers are making the decision to look for value, to be savvy and maybe they are looking at a market-leading brand of an item and they are looking at our SPAR brand item and wondering if the first is really worth the extra 30-40 pence.
“We do recognise that some families are struggling, without a doubt, and that’s why we will continue to invest to bring that value to the doorsteps of our shoppers in local communities,” he added.
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