The G8 was “a few days like no others I will ever experience as a local retailer in rural Fermanagh,” comments Una Lilley.

The excitement and publicity cause by in-store visits from Colin Farrell, The Ulster Rugby Team and G8 media resulted in increased sales in 2013. However, the local businesswoman who manages Lilley’s Centra & Topaz Service Station, realises that in order to build on those sales in 2014, “you have to stand out to give people a reason for coming to your store”.

Una took over management of the service station in 2000. Her father Brendan Lilley had managed and developed the store since the late 1980s. In her 14 years, she has overseen two major redevelopments of the site and has been the brains behind the popular gelato range.

It was her holidays in the south of France that inspired her colourful and tasty creations.

“In-store made gelato is something we got into three years ago as part of the redevelopment of the site,” Una explains. “Since its arrival we have always played about with gelato making Hallowe’en, St Patrick’s Day and Christmas Day flavours which are our own unique recipe or creation. Last year we took it to a whole new level.” Una explains: “I came up with the ideas and the names but our gelato artist has to deliver the flavour! I insist on checking all flavours before they go on sale, I call it a quality check but really it’s nothing more than a love of gleato and a very sweet tooth!!” Una “won’t ever forget” the interest caused by the visits of Colin Farrell and the Ulster Rugby team, but she is already planning future themed gelato flavours to entice tourists and locals alike. The Giro d’Italia saw Italian themed gelatos such as ‘Giro Gelato’ (tiramisu) and ‘Dan the Man’ (Bellini). Una reveals that the World Cup and the Beckett Festival will be the next big events.

The cost of fuel is a constant bug-bear for customers and retailers alike. Una was part of the Petrol Retailers Association sub committee, which visited Stormont and called for the lowering of the level of duty on diesel to bring it into line with the Republic of Ireland, banning below cost selling of fuel and tackling the illegal fuel problem.

Outlining her situation, she says: “There is little or no money to be made in fuel by independent retailers. If you are lucky you might cover your costs and yes fuel is a welcome addition to a convenience store operation, however, there is a perception that we have been ripping our customers off with the arrival of the multiples which simply isn’t true.

“We have no choice but to enter into trading arrangements with fuel wholesalers which adds to the cost for an independent forecourt retailer in Northern Ireland. The further a store is from the terminals, the higher the cost. It is as simple as that,” Una states.

Supermarkets sell up to six times as much fuel as an independent, Una explaines, “so they are turning over loads of fuel all of the time”. She continues: “They are therefore much more able to react to changes in pricing. Independents have huge investments in loads of Fuel in tanks on our forecourts. We cannot react to price falls until we sell our stock through and this leads to perception of us as being very expensive when the reality is many of us do not make any money on the Fuel we sell.

“Gross margins of two or three per cent are the norm and by the time you factor in staff cost, electricity, capital cost of tanks, pipework and pumps and their ongoing maintenance, plus the costs of meeting health, safety, environmental legislation and also factor in crime and ‘drive off’ activity, this margin is eroded very very quickly.” Free WiFi is an important offering to customers, Una believes, and BITBUZZ is now available on site. Social media interaction is important in getting your brand out there. “I did a little bit of playing about with social media in 2013 with the Colin Farrell and G8 stories to get word out there as to what we were doing,” Una explains. “I was reluctant to get into it fully as I have seen many retailers try and fail. It takes a significant time commitment and to be effective it must be done right – it has to be creative and it has to be constant. It is a definite objective for 2014.” Una concludes: “We launched our Facebook page up in December and we have a full marketing plan for this year to help us focus and grow our presence in this forum.”