A magnificent store – our store profile of Landscape Filling Station in north Belfast

A magnificent store – our store profile of Landscape Filling Station in north Belfast

North Belfast’s newest forecourt is a state-of-the-art shopping hub at the heart of a new wave of regeneration, as Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer discovers.

Landscape Filling Station on the Crumlin Road in Belfast opened in mid January following a lengthy seven-year gestation and is already proving hugely popular.

It’s a sign of its appeal that even the builders who completed the work are now coming there for their lunch while they work on another project in Belfast.

The forecourt launched by The Wall Group, which owns four SPAR stores in the North Belfast area, has been built on former Housing Executive land and replaces a much smaller forecourt across the road, which is destined to provide social housing for the area.

Helen Wall explains: “Part of the deal was that we had to build houses as well. So we’ve built six social houses behind the new shop and when the other shop is knocked down we have to build another four. That was part of the deal – it’s like the redevelopment of the whole area.”

She’s hoping that this new forecourt will be at the heart of a wider redevelopment. “If somebody would get the hotel (at Crumlin Courthouse) up and running, somebody else is talking about doing a hub with offices, the whole bottom of the road could be changing, and hopefully we will have a Post Office coming soon.”

First foray

The old Landscape filling station was the first foray into convenience stores for Helen and her husband Gavan, founders of the Wall Group.

“It was 468 sq ft and we had rented it out to somebody else to run. So we started off with that, and then we went up to the Ardoyne store and then we got the Whitewell store and we got Rathcoole – they’re all SPAR stores,” she says.

“The original Landscape store was really a glorified sweet shop with a petrol court. We did so many sweets, fizzy drinks, cigarettes and petrol, whereas our new store has 15 dairy fridges, six freezers, it’s got a deli, a Nugelato ice cream concession – it’s everything the other shop wasn’t.”

Helen herself is a qualified accountant, who has worked with everyone from Winemark and Musgrave before finally joining her husband Gavan in the family business four years ago. Before that, she says, former barrister Gavan changed careers and took on retail as a full-time role 13 years ago when they encountered some difficulties with the leaseholder of the old Landscape station.

He decided to run the station himself, much to Helen’s shock at the time.

She explains, laughingly: “I said ‘What, I’m eight months’ pregnant and you’re going to leave the Bar’ – and let me tell you, he had a fabulous practice at the Bar. You’re joking! But he said No, I’ve always really wanted to do it … and he did.

Start of an empire

“He started it and it was doing something like £9,000 a week, and when we left it was doing over £60,000. We did it, we opened 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and we partnered with Hendersons.

“Then a year and a half later, they said to him ‘Look we’ve another one just up the road, now Ardoyne is coming on board, do you fancy that’ and Gavin went ‘Yeah why not’ so then he took that one on.  And then he bought another out on the Whitewell Road and then Rathcoole came along.”

About four years into running Landscape, the Girdwood redevelopment came on the radar and there was a sense of things happening in North Belfast – and it spurred Gavan to put plans in place for a bigger and better version of the Landscape station.

“Even though he’s not from north Belfast, Gavan went to school in North Belfast and always loved it,” Helen says.

“He said this whole area needs to be redeveloped and someone’s talking about doing the Courthouse and Girdwood Barracks, they’re making it into a recreational centre. I’m going to try and get a new petrol station – this road is crying out for it.

“It took him seven years to get planning passed and he got planning passed in the middle of Covid, in lockdown. We got planning sanctioned in April and we started building in May.”

Brilliant team

Helen pays tribute to the team who got the impressive new 5,000 sq ft store up and running so quickly, including builders Cleary Contracting, architects Ashley Lamont and Conor McCavitt from Whittaker + Watt, WH Stephens, Dougan Contracts and Martin Food Equipment.

“We touched lucky, we had a really good team behind us – they were fabulous,” she says.

The site is over five times the size of the previous site and boasts an eight-pump Go Fuel forecourt with 22 car parking spaces – it will open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With The Wall Group’s bespoke ‘foodvenience’ offering, shoppers can pick up the SPAR Enjoy Local own-brand fresh food range, alongside food-to-go counters, including the Nugelato brand, the dailyDeli and Barista Bar coffee machines.

“We’ve got a complete fresh concession, with 15 fridges and six or seven freezers,” Helen says.

“We’ve put doors on all our fridges to keep our energy costs down and conserve energy and we don’t have any of the 5p plastic bags as well.”

State of the art tech

Meanwhile, the team have gone for state-of-the-art when it comes to store tech, investing in many of Henderson’s most up-to-the-minute developments.

“Each checkout has got the new Glory system attached to it so our staff never have to touch cash which was very beneficial during Covid,” Helen says.

“So if you came in and you wanted to pay and it was £18 you can either tap your credit card or if you put in £20 it will shoot you out your £2 change. It’s all facing you as a customer so there’s no cash touched by our staff.

“And we’ve gone for the electronic shelf edge labels, the ESELs. When you think of all the paper and the ink you’re using for all the ordinary SELs, hopefully that will be a move that we will make through all our stores eventually and put in the electronic SELS.

“The benefit of ESELS should be realised at promotional change-overs. Staff members can utilise their time in a more productive and value adding activity.

“We’re still trying to find our feet on it, but hopefully we will and it’s certainly something I would put in the other stores, so it doesn’t take half a day every time there’s a promotional change.”

It should also help with the familiar dilemma that arises when Trading Standards comes to tell them that something advertised at 58p has actually cost £75p, she says.

“Everything like that should match because it’s the back-office press of a button that sends all the prices, and what comes through the tills goes straight on to the electronic SELs. So hopefully it’s not only increasing labour productivity and saving on paper costs, but it will make us more compliant for Trading Standards – otherwise things can get missed.

“I’ve done it now in this store because we wanted as much high tech that we could put into it to see if it works. We need to see, does it do what it says on the tin.”

Onboarding system

The company has also invested in an HR system called OBBI which provides an onboarding process for every new employee that is recruited. It records the age of the employee, their details and whether they’re able and trained to sell cigarettes or lottery tickets: “It will ensure that we’ve got every member of staff trained to the right level and compliant with all the legal obligations that we’re meant to do within the store.”

The Wall Group has a culture of promoting from within and this system should help fit staff to the best posts and assist with succession planning, Helen says.

“It means we can ask Colin, who is the manager that we promoted to  a role encompassing Training, People Development, Compliance and Audit, ‘Who do we know in stores who have got x, y and z’ and he should be able to pull up and say ‘Helen, she’s able to do x, y and z’ – will she be beneficial down here, this is what we need.”

The Wall Group are proud of their organisational structure which allows them to respond quickly when anything unexpected comes along.

Data at fingertips

Helen pays tribute to their full-time accountant Ruairi who has put in place a portal that allows them access to regular information on the performance of each department.

“Ruairi has implemented a whole new system, the Wall Group Portal where we can monitor our KPI’s on a daily basis.

Our Operations Director, Kieran and his team ensures that all our stores deliver on sales, margin and excellent staffing. He ensures the smooth running of our four Spar stores and our Subway outlets.

“We’ve set up the systems and procedures, so if we get another store on board, we literally just lift these tools and put them over to the next site.”

Helen says that while they’re still on the look-out for more stores, they are hugely proud of the one they’ve just opened.

“It’s magnificent. It’s a £3 million spend – we decided from the start that we would build a beautiful store – fantastic lights and even from the front, it looks really good.

“Mind you when the first electricity bill came in, it was three times what I thought it was going to be with the way utilities are at the moment! But it looks really, really well. I’m so glad that we did it and I’m really proud of how it looks.”

To read the full article, visit Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer magazine.