Ray Flynn, third generation owner of Flynn’s Tullow, tells Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer how competition has forced a rethink of his forecourt
Over most of the last century, the market town of Tullow has been an arena of invention and modernisation by the Flynn family.
But it was 1990 that saw the business begin a process of revolution that would see the family-run firm become a dominant part of local retail.
Opened in the 1920s, Flynn’s Tullow was known more for car sales and farm machinery. But it wasn’t until ’94, when their first supermarket opened and a canopy was added, that the site began to look like a modern-day forecourt.
At three acres, the Co Carlow complex has long been a hub of commerce in the town, and today its modernity and scope of offer remain unrivalled.
It would prove a simple realisation that continued the constant evolution which began with his grandfather Tom almost a century ago.
The store was expanded and joined the Spar brand in 2000 and had made an early foray into the growing food-to-go market, with a Supermac’s Fresh Express joining the site in 2007. Another major step in heading off these external threats was the introduction of an off-licence in 2012, while Insomnia Coffee was added in 2014. Then, a Smooch ice-cream mini parlour, Subway, and Papa John’s Pizza were opened in 2015.
“For these redevelopments to work, we needed to construct a 70 seated food hall and integrate a more comprehensive and varied fresh food offer,” Ray said. “What we’re trying to do is create a fresh food destination for the region.”
Also guiding the business toward food service was the company’s 2004 decision to develop a third of its site for Aldi with a shared car parking arrangement (a first for the German retailer in Ireland).
“We realised we weren’t going to be able to take them on directly, so in effect we tried to leverage ourselves away from their strengths and embellish our own.”
Ray explained that the Aldi next door is just the beginning of the competition in Tullow. The town also sports three supermarkets, another forecourt, and three further convenience stores.
“It’s a very, very competitive town, and probably over-shopped,” Ray said. “It has been really important for us to establish a strong value perception with our customers.”
It was a plan that needed to work. Throughout the recession, Tullow maintained a high level of unemployment, up to 3% above the national average.
“That made it a very price-conscious town,” he said.
To combat the potential falls in revenue, Ray said the business focused on increasing transaction counts and improving average spends.
“We were relatively unique in that we grew the business every year from 2009 to 2015,” he said. “For us to justify the substantial spend for our recent developments, we had to get to a plateau in transaction levels. The mantra of the business was ‘leave no one behind’ – every aspect of the forecourt, store, and food hall had to operate well.”
Another factor in the forecourt’s success was joining the leading fuel brand Top Oil after 84-years with a former brand.
For Ray, it marked one of the most pivotal decisions he had taken.
Ray said: “In 2012, Top Oil approached us with an offer that really suited us, but it was a big wrench to move away from our previous partner we’d worked with since the 1920s.
“It was a tough choice, but moving to Top Oil ranks as one of the best decisions I have made in my career to date.”
The change was remarkable and instantaneous. Fuel sales litreage increased by 37 per cent in year one, with growth maintained since then.
“Top Oil has a strong local connection and footprint in the area, and we knew we didn’t have to market Top Oil as a ‘value brand’ because Top Oil had driven that message in our area for a number of years.
“Top Oil is the largest family owned importer of oil products into Ireland, and has a regional distribution depot in Tullow, so that made it very easy to make the decision.”
Ray told us that Top Oil also helped ensure every aspect of the business grew, supporting a number of improvements throughout the forecourt, such as improving the appearance of the exterior and pumps.
“They are a very good company to deal with and have a local team that can make fast decisions when you need one,” Ray said. “All those things are valuable to us.”
With the business packed with World-class brands, leading in growth areas such as food-to-go, most would be reaching around to pat their own backs.
But for Ray, it’s only the beginning in the business’s next evolutionary stage.
“We have just completed construction on a new prime retail unit beside our Food Hall. Now ready to let, this is the first of a number of units which have attracted strong interest given the high footfall on site,” he said. “We are currently reviewing expressions of interest with a view to choosing the options that will best complement our existing business and brands.”
We’re sure he’ll make the right decision.