SPAR retailer Thomas Ennis has always been a trend setter, especially when it comes to fresh food and food to go. This is particularly evident in the continuing success of his flagship store in the heart of one of Dublin’s busiest locations. He talks to Maev Martin about SPAR Merrion Row’s recent makeover and the significance of his victory at the IGD awards In November.
45-year-old Thomas Ennis has worked in retailing for 30 years, beginning his career in the industry at the tender age of 15 and eventually graduating to various managerial positions in Superquinn, where he received excellent training and guidance from the great Feargal Quinn.
“I worked there for six years as a manager while Feargal was at the helm so that is where I learned about the importance of providing good food and exceptional customer service,” he says.
“During those formative years I was involved with Superquinn when they got into the convenience business with their Superquinn Select initiative and I also worked with John Furey and Maurice Smyth when they were independent SuperValu retailers.
They are now EUROSPAR retailers and they are exceptionally good at what they do.
At Superquinn I learned all about the customer being king and about fresh food, margins, and doing all of the things that differentiate you from your competitors.”
Thomas spent his time wisely, developing his knowledge and experience before opening his first SPAR store with BWG Foods in December 2005 - SPAR Merrion Row.
SPAR’s fresh food ethos and business model spoke directly to Thomas’ beliefs and ambitions and is premised on offering the customer high quality fresh food and exemplary customer service, an approach that has been the foundation stone for all of his SPAR stores, which now number seven, with more to come.
Ennis describes himself as “predominantly a food retailer with a high emphasis on fresh food.”
In building his mini retail empire, he has blazed a trail of firsts in the convenience sector. SPAR Merrion Row was ahead of its time, introducing innovations that have only become commonplace in stores in recent years.
For example, qualified chefs were introduced to produce food to a level of quality that was new for a convenience store at that time, while the store was also one of the first to introduce an Insomnia Coffee offering and sit-down area.
Apart from SPAR Merrion Row, the Thomas Ennis Group now also includes SPAR Wexford Street, SPAR Middle Baggot Street, SPAR Lower Baggot Street, SPAR Westland Row, SPAR New Street and SPAR Lower Mount Street, as well as three forecourt stores.
Store of the Year
SPAR Merrion Row won the Small Store of the Year Award at the prestigious international IGD Awards in London in November, 2019. SPAR Merrion Row was selected for the coveted accolade ahead of international competition from Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Northern Ireland and China.
The international competition included Henderson’s store in Belfast, 7/11 in Copenhagen, Fresh Atelier in Brussels, Hema Fast and Fresh in Shanghai, and the Co-Op On-the-Go store in London.
The Institute of Grocery Distribution, or IGD, is a renowned grocery trade body that is based in the UK but has a global reach.
Award recipients at the annual awards ceremony are internationally recognised as true industry leaders, and the best of the best in their respective categories.
SPAR Merrion Row was initially included in a shortlist of six stores from the 900+ stores audited. “We considered entering the awards before but this year we felt that, with the revamp, we would be contenders,” says Ennis.
“There was a detailed assessment process, which focused on the outcome of our revamp and on how we operate as a shop. We also delivered a presentation on every aspect of the store and the judges, including Gavin Rothwell, head of food-to-go and retail in IGD, visited our store," he says.
"It was a rigorous assessment process that covered, among other things, efficiency, product and service differentiation, the use of local suppliers, store layout, and key elements of the store offering. This Award is a real endorsement of my team here at SPAR Merrion Row, which includes Sandra McCormack, general manager of the Thomas Ennis Group, as well as the BWG Foods’ SPAR team, which includes Colin Donnelly, SPAR Sales Director and Retail Development Director, Declan Ralph.”
An expert team
SPAR Merrion Row is open 14 years this month. The store employs 38 people and the Thomas Ennis Group employs 240 staff across all of its businesses. Apart from the fresh food focus and continuous innovation, being a hands on operator is another important aspect of the business for Thomas. “Helping my staff to deliver quality customer service is a high priority,” he says.
“In fact, it is our number one priority that our customers are spoiled when they come in. There is a massive amount of competition in the market so you have to let them know that you appreciate their business, and part of that is ensuring that you have high standards - the store must be clean, well maintained, tidy, and well laid out.”
However, although Ennis is hands on, he acknowledges the strength of his management team.
“We promote all our managers from within the store and offer a lot of internal training,” he says. “I’ve built a very strong leadership team and developed a good structure to help me run the business. Sandra McCormack is the general manager, and she’s been with me from day one.”
Revamp of Merrion Row
The revamp of the SPAR Merrion Row store began in March of this year and included changing the in-store theatre completely and adding new BWG Foods’ exclusive concepts such as Food Junction, which is a salad bar with freshly prepared foods, including hot healthy protein food options and cold gourmet made-in-store salads.
SPAR’s innovative All Day Food Bar, which consists of a breakfast offering, including fresh made-to-order omelettes and scrambled eggs with different toppings, is also new to SPAR Merrion Row and is in direct response to SPAR Merrion Row’s customers’ specific needs as identified during SPAR’s research planning ahead of last year’s reveal of the new strategy.
“We started from scratch - nothing was kept from the previous store,” says Ennis.
“We redesigned the whole store and we did it in stages. We wanted there to be a strong emphasis on fresh food and food-to-go and we have added some really innovative options for our customers. Our in-house chef prepares fresh salads as well as vegetarian options, which we didn’t have before, and the omelette bar is proving to be a wonderful addition to the store. The store also features Insomnia coffee and a strong wine offering, as well as our exceptionally strong deli and food-to-go offering. All of our food in the deli and food-to-go area is produced on site and we have done that from day one, which has put us ahead of the curve.”
When it comes to the grocery aspect of the store, Ennis says that they have streamlined their range. “Everything on the shelf now sells, we don’t have any shelf warmers,” he says.
“However, we have expanded the vegan and vegetarian ranges in our grocery lines and that was based on our experience in the market. While we offer grocery, confectionery and drinks, grocery is not a big area for us because of our location, so it is all about fresh food-to-go and, of course, coffee. Food is the big seller for us and, from day one, going back to my Superquinn days, fresh food was what it was all about. Good fresh food with a nice range and exceptional service never goes out of fashion. That was our core principle from the beginning and it has stood to us ever since.”
Ennis points out that, while they weren’t in a position to increase the size of the store, the revamp has resulted in a much more efficient operation.
“We brought it back to a shell and removed the bulkhead and the perception is that it has been extended but we have just been smarter with our space,” he says.
“The store in its current form represents all of our learnings from trading over the past 14 years and SPAR Ireland were very involved in the revamp. Our relationship is a strong partnership and they guided us through every stage of the project.
From agreeing the design and throughout the various stages of construction, SPAR advised and supported us all the way to the finish line.”
The educated consumer
Ennis has a customer profile that must be the envy of many retailers. They are in the middle of the business district in Dublin 2, backing onto government buildings.
The Merrion Hotel, Shelbourne Hotel and The Conrad are within a few minutes’ walk and St Stephens Green is on their doorstep. “We get a great mix of government workers, politicians and tourists,” he says.
“However, one thing that all of our customers have in common is that they are very educated about food – they know what good food should taste like, so we are constantly trying to reinvent our offering to ensure that it is what our customers want. I am a hands on retailer and I think that is important if you are to remain successful and competitive.”
Speaking of remaining competitive, he tells me that he is currently looking at opening another SPAR store in the city centre, which he hopes will be up and running next year.
© 2020 Checkout – your source for the latest Irish retail news. Article by Maev Martin. Click subscribe to sign up for the Checkout print edition.