Posted on Thursday 12 May 2011 by Ulster Business

[caption id="attachment_1003" align="alignnone" width="510" caption="Pictured left to right are: Martin Agnew, Managing Director; Geoffrey Agnew, Managing Director and John Agnew, Chairman"]Pictured left to right are: Martin Agnew, Managing Director; Geoffrey Agnew, Managing Director and John Agnew, Chairman[/caption]

As the Henderson Group celebrates 50 years of the SPAR brand in Northern Ireland, Ulster Business spoke with Chairman John Agnew to get an insight into how the business has changed over the years and its plans for future expansion

Wherever you live in Northern Ireland there is a good chance that you are not far from a SPAR store. With over 300 stores across the province, the brand has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it is hard to imagine it not being here. It is a position that the owners of the SPAR franchise in Northern Ireland - the Mallusk-based Henderson Group - have worked hard to achieve, and one it perhaps could not have envisioned when it first joined SPAR 50 years ago this month. Founded in Holland, SPAR spread throughout Europe before first coming to the UK in 1957. Around that time William Agnew - father of current Henderson Group chairman John Agnew - became convinced that small independent wholesalers and retailers would disappear unless they could compete with the growth in multiple retailing, and he decided symbol group trading was the way forward. So it was for that reason the company signed up with SPAR with the first branded store opening in May 1961.


John Agnew describes the early 1960s as exciting, pioneering days, and that Henderson’s took a step of faith joining SPAR, which then completely changed the retail landscape. "We believed it was the right thing for the future of the business, otherwise independent retailers were in danger of disappearing because of the competition from multiples," says John. "The idea caught on very quickly, but it was obviously a new thing for retailers. We were saying to them ‘come with us and we will give you 100% support, but we will expect the same commitment in return’. That took time, because retailers had built up connections with other wholesalers and a lot of them were doing business direct with manufacturers." One of the major milestones came when Henderson’s decided to move away from being only a wholesaler to running its own shops, the first of which opened in 1963. "There was a certain amount of opposition from retailers at that time but our point was that we needed to know how to run a retail business, we needed hands-on experience," explains John. "Also by having our own retail stores we were able to move into fruit and vegetables, produce, milk and other products that wholesalers back in the 1960s would not have handled." Of the 300 SPAR stores, Henderson’s now operates around 70 of its own stores. But the vast majority of the SPAR estate is still made up of independently owned, family-run businesses like the Henderson Group itself. "When you get a very good independent retailer running his business well, nothing can beat that," John says. "You will often find they are family businesses and have been cemented in the community for a long time. Most, if not all, will know a lot of their customers’ names. People want to get good service but they also want to be acknowledged as a person. It can play a very important role in the community." This sense of family is very strong throughout the Henderson Group and is reflected by the decision of John’s sons Martin and Geoffrey to join the family business in the mid 80s. Having previously gained experience working elsewhere in wholesale and retail businesses they brought fresh ideas and thinking. Since becoming joint managing directors, the company and SPAR have grown at an even faster rate.


Last year saw 12 more stores start trading under the SPAR brand and three have joined so far in 2011. John Agnew believes the attraction comes not just because of the deal they get in terms of goods, but because the retailers get a "comprehensive service" which includes a comprehensive marketing package, merchandising, professional advice, IT assistance, deliveries six days a week, as well as access to the expertise of the wider SPAR family. "One of the unique aspects of SPAR is that it is almost like a club. We share ideas with each other, not only in the UK but further afield. SPAR is now in 33 countries," says John. "China opened up seven years ago and we were out there last year. India has opened up, so two of the fastest developing countries have SPAR. We have had people from China come here to observe how we do our logistics because that was very underdeveloped for them." To make sure there is a continued focus on new ideas within SPAR the company spends a lot of time on training courses for its retailers, including study visits to the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond. And in an environment where bank funding is more difficult to source, Henderson’s is also helping to finance retailers keen to run their own businesses or revamp existing stores. "That has been one of the key reasons the standard of our stores has improved so much over the past 10 years, because retailers have been able to afford to either re-equip their store or move into a new store. We do offer financial support to retailers who are looking to invest or set-up a new store and work closely with them and their bank. At any point in time we have £15m lent to our independent retailers," the Henderson’s chairman adds.


It is well documented that since the economy took a turn for the worse, retail has been particularly hard hit, and the grocery sector has become increasingly competitive. SPAR’s mission is to deliver the needs and wants of its shoppers close to home, and this emphasis on convenience allied with increasing product choice and favourable opening hours means business has held up well. "Convenience trading has proved reasonably resilient. We are suffering flat sales at the moment, as most people are, but there is a trend towards people buying more frequently. Some people will go to our stores rather than go to a big supermarket as it limits the temptation to buy more than then really need," says John. "We’re giving a convenience shopping experience, where customers have a good range of goods - packaged, fresh and food-to-go. We look on our stores as destination stores, where people can get fuel, food, if possible a post office, an ATM - we’re trying to give an all round package to the customer at reasonable prices," he adds. Over 70% of SPAR’s fresh food is locally supplied, meeting the needs within local communities. "With the demise of traditional fruit and veg stores and butchers, there is a demand from the consumer for those local products," he says. "The trend is for larger stores so we can provide a wider range of goods and the customer can get more of what they require in their shopping, particularly in fresh food. The aim is to have 50% of our sales in fresh products." With its 300+ stores continuing to evolve, and an ever widening suite of services on offer to retailers, it would be a brave man who would argue against SPAR still being a fixture in Northern Ireland’s retail landscape for another 50 years. "We are very confident of the future for SPAR," says John Agnew. "If we keep constantly improving our offer and service, the customers will keep coming."


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