Andrew Millar’s forecourts are thriving despite the fuel pricing disparity with the Republic. Anne Bruce finds out why

Northern Irish motorists often find it cheaper to drive across the border and fill up in the Republic. That has not stopped the biggest player in the province’s independent sector targeting forecourts in a rapid expansion, says retail operations director Mark McCammond.

The Andrew Millar chain, which has a turnover of £150m, is the company-owned stores division of Spar wholesaler John Henderson. Five years ago, it had 30 stores and only five forecourts. Now it has 53 stores, with 41 forecourts, and is number 11 in The Grocer’s Top 50 independents list. The company takes £1.5m a week on retail and a further £1.5m on fuel, estimates McCammond.

Its most recent purchase was a parcel of 13 Shell stores in August last year that brought its share of the legal fuel market in Northern Ireland up to 25%. It will make further acquisitions if they are around or in Belfast where the market is stronger - not near the border.

McCammond says: “Hundreds of filling stations on this side of the border have closed down. On the other side you might have five petrol stations within 100m of each other. A gallon costs a quarter less in the Republic. It is 77p in the north and maybe 77 cents in the south.” Andrew Millar is lobbying to get that pricing disparity addressed. It is working with trade bodies such as the Petrol Retailers’ Association and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, says McCammond.

There is, however, one big advantage to operating c-stores on forecourts in Northern Ireland. They are exempt from Sunday trading restrictions when they can trade full hours, regardless of size.

Another general perk to c-stores on forecourts is the dual branding potential.
Andrew Millar’s Spar, Vivo and Eurospar brands are combined with the petrol operator’s brand on display - BP, Shell or Texaco - for maximum impact and the company is experimenting with similar multi-brand messages in store. It recently became the first UK c-store to trial a Subway sandwich concession at its East Belfast forecourt store last November.

Customer reaction to that US export was enthusiastic. Six more 250 sq ft concessions are in the pipeline. McCammond says 70% of Subway’s US and Canadian outlets are on forecourts. “It is something we can tap into.”

He wants the chain to be “famous for fresh” by embracing ideas like Subway concessions, he adds. “Produce is at front of stores, it’s very important. We can do it as good as the multiples, better in some cases.”

It’s a strategy that goes beyond vegetables. The company has won awards for its butchery counters. It now has four, an unexpected sight in a c-store, serving fresh cuts and pre-pack. Stores also have instore bakeries and a large selection of packaged bread lines.

Bread sells in massive volumes in Northern Ireland and an Andrew Millar convenience store may sell 250 different breads and cakes. Stock levels and service on this large range are policed through a quarterly mystery shopping programme in all company-owned stores.

The company also invests heaving in benefits and training programmes for staff including cash rewards for employees and rearing the managers of the future. These initiatives pay dividends in terms of staff turnover, down to 64% a year as of end of 2003. McCammond says: “The target is to get is down to sub-40% through training and family friendly policies.”