Winning NI Retailer of the Year is the pinnacle of our retail career as a family-run business
“If you stand still in this business you get left behind,” says Jonathan McCullagh – and he is in the best position to know as McCullagh’s Classic have recently completed seven years of expansion and regeneration of their Omagh business.
McCullagh’s Classic took home the top prize of NI Retailer of the Year at this year’s Neighbourhood Retailer Awards, something Jonathan described as being “the pinnacle of their retail career”.
“It was just the icing on the cake,” he tells Neighbourhood Retailer.
“We were absolutely over the moon, completely blown away by it. We were delighted for everyone involved in the business.
“We are 30 years in business this year. It was never our intention to set out to win this, but it was the icing on the cake. Winning the NI Retailer of the Year, in my opinion, it’s the pinnacle of our retail career as a family-run business.”
Jonathan’s brother, and business partner, Terry said the award was also great for their parents.
“They started the business from very small, humble beginnings,” he said. “It’s great to get that recognition from such a prestigious event, especially for a family-run business like ours.”
Jonathan and Terry have both worked in the store from a young age, with Jonathan recalling working in the family shop at seven years old. “When our parents (Terence and Briege McCullagh) bought the place 30 years ago, I was working here most Saturdays, it’s all we’ve known,” he said.
EXPANSION AND DEVELOPMENT
Inevitably over those 30 years the family has witnessed and overseen some major changes in the retail industry and in their store specifically. With the growth of competition in Omagh and some close to their own shop, the family has worked hard to hold on to their coveted and important position in the local community.
“Thirty years ago, when our parents first started the business, there was hardly any competition. In those 30 years there has been an Asda open just opposite us, a Lidl, Home Bargains, a KFC and McDonald’s have all opened within a stone’s throw of our store,” said Terry.
“Obviously, what we have had to do in order to survive, is grow and invest in our business.
“That involved expanding. We have gone through two full knockdowns and rebuilds, focusing on our unique selling points which set us apart from the competition. These include our food to go, customer service and fuel, which is very competitively priced, being able to offer everything under the one roof.”
The most recent knockdown and rebuild was in 2015. At that time Jonathan and Terry did not bring in a contractor, instead undertaking the entire organisation of the building project themselves.
“There was no downtime at all. We acquired various neighbouring properties, which allowed us the extra land to expand, a new forecourt, new tanks, the full works. Once that was completed, we just knocked the old place down.”
In early 2020 they doubled the size of the shop when they acquired another piece of property beside them and at this point they incorporated an off licence into the store.
‘We have gone from strength to strength’
Then at the start of this year, they completed their car park extension, which involved remodelling one of the buildings on site. McCullagh’s Classic now offers customers 70+ car parking spaces, while also providing all-new office facilities and additional storage space.
The store now stands at 6,000 sq ft of retail space, which includes a seating area.
“After 7+ years of building works and so on, I can say that it’s complete! In 2015 there were several doubters as to whether our store could look forward or survive with all the surrounding competition, but thankfully we have gone from strength to strength,” said Jonathan.
This extensive expansion and store development has allowed them to introduce new concepts and facilities in the store. One of those being the off licence, which opened just before lockdown, something Jonathan said was “great timing to say the least!”
“We have recently introduced self-checkouts, which have really improved the efficiency and speed of service within the store and they have gone down very well with the customers.
“We also have a new ice cream parlour called ‘Crave’. We buy the ice cream in and put our own twist on it.
“Another USP is our in-store chip shop attached on to our deli counter. In our 30 years, we have always had a chip shop on site. In 2015, rather than have the chippy in a separate unit, we incorporated it into the store like a food court concept. It’s a great offering for the customers in the evening and drives footfall.
“We also introduced an in-store bakery during lockdown. Again, it’s proven to be a good USP for us,” added Terry.
PRIDE IN STAFF
This expansion and increase in services provided in-store has meant that McCullagh’s have had to employ more staff. They currently have 65 staff working for them, along with their own full-time in-house HR.
“We are very proud of our in-house training scheme. That really helps one of our USPs for exceptional customer service, that is something we focus on investing heavily in.”
Indeed, alongside customer loyalty, the team pride themselves on staff loyalty with one member of staff working with them from the store first opened 30 years ago.
“There are also many who have been with us 15+ years. That loyalty and support – they have become friends as opposed to work colleagues.”
Jonathan added: “We have an exceptional team in the store. And with the rapid expansion, we have had to increase our staff and it was wonderful to get that recognition for all their efforts.”
‘We are always looking to improve in any way that we can’
Following a tough few years, with the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, Terry said their store is back to full strength.
“Thankfully we have made a full recovery in all aspects of the business. We were very fortunate that we did not see too much of a dip due to the offering we have. We are centrally located, so that kept us relevant. We were just very fortunate that the business remained consistent,” he said.
“We have always experienced growth year-on-year. It’s been hard for us to actually determine pre- and post-Covid as we doubled the size of the store in March 2020. We cannot really generate like-for-like sales, so notably the sales have grown. We are very happy with how it’s going.
“Food to go is a big driver in the store and it would be one of the main aspects of our store. But we do not just single that out, we look at driving all aspects of the store because it all comes together. If one aspect was weak it would not put the store in a good light, so we want to be as strong as we can in all aspects.”
The team at McCullagh’s Classic are not ones to rest on their laurels and are always keen to find new ways to move forward and drive the business.
“We are always looking to improve in any way that we can. If you stand still in this business you get left behind. We are always looking for new concepts and new technology to make the business more efficient. It’s always evolving,” said Jonathan.
“We are big into our social media presence; we find that a really good way of engaging with our customers, showing our new products and promoting our value message.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Technology continues to be a major game-changer in neighbourhood and convenience retailing, a factor which McCullagh’s are constantly considering when developing their store.
“We have the self-checkouts and customers have really adapted to those. We have also recently invested in digital SELS throughout the store. These are linked to the back office. They are a huge time saver for our team when it comes to promotion changeover and the accuracy they provide the customer with pricing is second-to-none.”
Like so many within the industry, McCullagh’s are facing some unprecedented challenges with the rapid increase in energy costs and the subsequent impact this has on other costs within the business. Jonathan said this was definitely the biggest challenge to the business at present.
“They have more than doubled at this stage,” he said. “Although the energy relief scheme will be a good help over the next number of months. But it’s a big worry going forward when that comes to an end.
“Margins are very tight for a lot of businesses. You just have to look at how we can grow sales, cut costs and become more efficient.”
In terms of trends in neighbourhood and convenience retail, Terry said right now it is all about value.
“Customers are looking for good deals and great quality food products. The demand is still there for food to go.
“The retail game is always evolving rapidly and new concepts and changes coming along. You just have to embrace it and adapt and move with it. All the technology we have introduced so far together with store expansion over the last few years have been really beneficial in helping us grow our business.
“We are a family-run business, our father Terence is still heavily involved in the business and I work alongside my brother, Terry. We have huge pride in our business and how we have grown it over the last 30 years and the same sense of pride in our team. The local community has been so supportive and that is probably what we are most proud of over the years,” added Jonathan.