By Paul Alexander

The manager of Robinson’s Supermarket in Ballymena has said he hopes that work to extend the Cullybackey Road retailer will begin by the middle of the summer.  

Store Manager Gary Olphert described how plans to increase the current building, which opened in 2006, from 6,000sqft to 10,000sqft would get underway in the coming months. 

Mr Olphert, who has been employed by the Robinson’s family for the past 31 years, revealed there have been plans to redevelop the store for some time. He said: “We had always planned to extend the premises. We were busting at the seams 18 months ago and wanting to get bigger even back then.  

“There’s a thing in retail where, basically, if you stand still you get left behind and, with innovation, technology and the way independent business is, you need to keep focussing on the next four/five years ahead.  

“We’ve been trying to get permission to extend the premises for about four or five years. All the pieces lined up there around six months ago so we started clearing the site behind us and we’re hoping, all being well, to start building around the middle of this summer. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do.” 

The store manager also explained what the additional space will be used for. He said:“To be honest, the future of independent retail is probably not in ambient grocery – it’s going to be in fresh food. Our delis and take-home meals – they’ve really evolved over the last five to ten years.” 

He continued: “So we’re hoping that the deli side of things and the chilled side of things will probably go to about two-and-a-half times the size it is now. Ambient grocery maybe won’t increase that much. But chilled, fresh, fruit and veg – all those kinds of things are where we’re going to try and concentrate. Going down the route of a food hall/food market as opposed to just your local independent supermarket.”  

Despite competition from larger retailers, Mr Olphert highlighted what makes his store unique and how the redevelopment will help. He said: “We understand that we might not be able to compete with the multiples on every level, but we feel our strength is our name on our take-home range and the things you can get under one roof. That if you want to call in here on a daily basis, as opposed to going elsewhere and doing a weekly shop, we’re here for you.”  

He added: “We’ve got a whole new image as well. We don’t want to unveil too much at the moment because, obviously, we don’t want it to lose its impact whenever the day comes. Your image, your labels and how the shop’s designed and laid out are all things that you want to be a surprise.” 

In terms of trading during the redevelopment, Mr Olphert said it was unclear exactly how that would happen at this stage. He said:“That’s a difficult one. We don’t know what’s going to happen. When we built this building, we put up a temporary structure and it was a lot of effort for the short period of time it was required. This time round we don’t really know.  

“We’re looking at different ways of how we could open the new part of the shop and then feed in the old bit. We just don’t know until we get a bit closer to construction whether that’s going to be able to happen or not. We’ll strive to keep our fuel open for all our fuel customers who’ve been with us for decades. We do plan to keep trading. There’s obviously going to be disruption but maybe, for a month or so, there could be quite considerable disruption.” 

He also discussed how he hopes to add to the store’s current team of 63 employees. He said:“We’re forecasting to go to about 80 – 85 staff. Again, it’s just one of those things you’ll not be sure about until trade/footfall comes too. But it should be easy enough to have in the region of 85 staff, we think, for the projected turnover that we hope to do to make this all worthwhile. So that would create, probably, about 20 jobs.”