Driving through Ballincollig, Co. Cork, is like playing a game of ‘spot the retailer’, with all of Ireland’s major grocers having at least one, or two, outlets located there. But is this exponential growth good for business? Stephen Wynne-Jones visited the town.
It’s only a stone’s throw from the centre of Cork City, but Ballincollig has developed into a thriving metropolis of its own in recent years, driven by a rapid influx of families from elsewhere in the county, as well as a steady rise in the number of retail outlets serving the community.
But when is enough enough? Last October, Tesco opened the doors of a massive 32,000-square-foot outlet in the centre of town, in the vicinity of a Dunnes, two SuperValus, a Lidl and two Aldis – and that’s to say nothing of the fact that Tesco also operates a massive hypermarket just ten minutes down the road in Wilton. Can Ballincollig, which is approximately four miles from end to end, support this many supermarkets? Or, should the town be held up, as many local businesses argue, as an archetypal model for town planning?
From The Inside Out
“We’ve got a population of 25,000, and another 7,000 in the surrounding area,” says Emer Cassidy, chairperson of the Ballincollig Business Association. “What people don’t realise is that we’ve gone from ‘village’ to the largest town in the county in about ten years. We’re now three times the size of Mallow and four times the size of Midleton.”
Cassidy has lived in Ballincollig for 17 years and remembers the time when it was “very much a one-sided town – the army barracks wall was on one side of the street and all the shops were on the other”.
The closure of said barracks in 1999 led for a rethink as to how best develop the town, giving rise to the Ballincollig Town Centre development, led by developer Michael O’Flynn, and the subsequent retail explosion.
“We would see ourselves as an example of very good town planning,” says Cassidy, “where all the development happened from the town centre. In a lot of other towns around the country, the main new development would have been out of town.
“A typical example would be Tralee, where the opening of Manor Park has been very difficult on city-centre traders. With Ballincollig, everything happened from the inside out.”
But can the town sustain so many retail options in such a confined space? Cassidy points to recent experience as evidence that it not only can, but could potentially grow even more.
“I was in Quish’s SuperValu [located in the town’s ‘West End’] on a Sunday evening, at about six o’clock, and you couldn’t get a space in the car park. You would have thought that would be a quiet time.”
Tesco, she attests, did its homework before opening its new store in the town last autumn. “The arrival of Tesco didn’t happen by accident. Tesco didn’t look at the town and think it would be nice to open a store here. They looked at the numbers, they looked at the growing community, and they made a sizeable investment.
“Mallow has a population of 8,000. They have SuperValu, Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and Dunnes – the whole shoot ’n’ shebang. So if a town a third the size of Ballincollig can do it, why can’t Ballincollig?”
Supply And Demand
Sean Quish, proprietor of Quish’s, remembers a time when Ballincollig was quieter. He took over the L&N supermarket on the edge of town in 2000, around the time that Aldi, perhaps sensing a future opportunity, opened its first store outside Dublin (only its second in Ireland) in the town.
Now, however, Quish is in no doubt that the opening of the new Tesco outlet has left the town at near-saturation point.
“Ballincollig is situated at the end of the motorway leading into Cork, meaning that in five minutes, you can be at Dunnes Stores in Bishopstown, which is doing over a million a week, and then, in another five minutes, you’re at Tesco Wilton,” he explains.
Quish’s objection to the project has been longstanding. In 2012, Leefield Limited, the company that trades as Quish’s SuperValu, launched an objection to the planned Tesco development, saying that the development would ‘reduce the viability of existing retailers in Ballincollig Town Centre’. However, he says that his concerns extend beyond the increased competition that the new store will generate.
“When Tesco opened, the Irish Examiner called me up to ask me whether I was worried,” he says. “I told them quite honestly, ‘No, we’re not worried about Tesco – we’re worried about our customers.’ Concentrating on your competition is not healthy.
“For me, it’s not an objection to competition. There’s such a thing as saturation. There’s always a statement that comes out about how a new store will ‘create jobs’ – you don’t, really. What happens? Somebody leaves somewhere to go to somewhere else. That’s what’s happening all over the country.”
Quish’s SuperValu underwent an overhaul last October, just as Tesco was opening its doors, however, Quish rubbishes suggestions that the new store’s imminent arrival spurred this development.
“The revamp was done for the customers, not for the fact that Tesco was coming,” he says. “The last major revamp we did was four or five years prior to that, and in this business, particularly if you’re part of SuperValu, you operate on a five-year cycle when it comes to refurbishment. We’re actually doing another one now at our store in Tramore, where there’s no extra competition, simply because the store needs a facelift.”
This development – including a revamp of the store’s bakery, deli and meat departments – has reinforced what Quish sees as the store’s key point of difference: its ability to meet customer demand.
“Anyone can sell Persil Automatic, to be fair,” he says, “but what a lot of people can’t sell is the whole experience: the bread, the deli, the seafood, the meat. We have a phenomenal meat kitchen, with three master butchers and two apprentices, and because of that, we are known as a go-to location for meat.”
Tesco isn’t the only new opening that Quish has had to deal with over the years. A Lidl opened right across the road in 2009, following the opening of Dunnes in the town centre four years previously. As with any new opening, Quish is taking this new arrival in his stride.
“What do you do when you have extra competition? You play to your strengths. In retail, you up your game on a continuous basis, and what we are always trying to do is up our game to the stage where we know other stores can’t touch us. They can’t deliver that service. And I know it sounds arrogant to say it, but they just can’t. It’s not in their DNA.”
Tesco Ballincollig is managed by Alan Coughlan, who, after 17 years of working in various Tesco outlets around the country, “jumped at the opportunity” to open the store in his home town last October [somewhat ironically, the planning for the store was orchestrated by the late Vincent Quish, former property development manager at Tesco and Sean Quish’s cousin].
Coughlan believes that while Ballincollig is well served by supermarkets, the growth in store numbers is reflective of the size of the town.
“The catchment area outside Ballincollig is as high as 40,000, and for us, it’s a very important location, as the last Tesco before you get to Kerry. Here, we’re able to touch all the people that like the Tesco experience but might have found it difficult to get to Wilton, or to Douglas. With this location, you can just slip off the motorway, come into the store, slip back onto the motorway, and off you go.”
As Coughlan explains, this also ensures that the store doesn’t cannibalise business from Wilton or Douglas (located 8km and 13km away, respectively), as the different Tesco outlets dotted around Cork’s environs serve different communities.
“Where Wilton sits, you have the hospital close by, and you would have a lot of people coming down from the north side of the city to shop there. People travelling to Douglas would come from the south of the city, from places like Carrigaline. With this store, people are coming from Macroom, West Cork, even Kerry.”
As a Ballincollig native, ‘local’ is important to Coughlan and his team, and he believes that the store competes just as well as other outlets in the town when it comes to its local credentials.
While the 32,000-square-foot store is labelled a ‘superstore’, it has several features more akin to a Tesco Extra, including a Tesco Mobile store-within-a-store, an extensive fashion collection, an in-store O’Briens sandwich outlet, and even a community room that can be reserved by local groups, free of charge. Dotted throughout the store are a series of shelf-talkers, highlighting the store’s local suppliers – everyone from Green Saffron to Barry’s Tea.
“I wanted to open this store with a real local feel,” Coughlan explains, “so all the staff that work here are local, and we have really given our suppliers the space to showcase what they can offer. As well as that, we’re out and about in the community. It’s not that we’re looking for something back, it’s just what we want to do.
“You don’t want to be seen as the ‘big multinational’ coming into the town, you want to be seen for the good stuff, and how you can help the community, which is what we are doing.”
It may be open for less than a year at this stage, but Tesco Ballincollig appears to be here for the long haul … along with everyone else.