W e were very much trying to target the young female professional," says O’Briens’ retail and operations director Andrew Moyes, recalling the sandwich and coffee chain’s old look. Then, with exquisite timing, he gives a cheeky nod in the direction of the walking embodiment of the Irish franchise firm’s broadening appeal - a silver-haired 70-plus woman, who seats herself at the next table.
"I think we now have a bigger spectrum of customer and we’re accessible to everyone, from youths to the ’grey pound’," he says in the revamped London branch. "We’ve got a much broader customer profile now than if you look back to five years ago. And we now have the offer to match that profile."
The ’Starbucks of Ireland’ - O’Briens outnumbers the US coffee chain over there by almost 10-1 - has developed a new retail offer over the last six months. The changes at first seem largely cosmetic, featuring more coherent branding in-store, better use of images and more comfortable furniture. But one major change has been behind the counter - where a new quicker grilling system allows for a much faster throughput - alongside changes to the product range.
In the UK, 25 of the company’s 100-plus stores have already been upgraded, rising to 60 by the end of this month. The new look will be replicated across its 120 Ireland stores and expanding worldwide franchise network, which brings the total to around 300 stores. "We’re really moving it to more of a lifestyle/café feel rather than a straight sandwich bar," he says. "So we’ve been looking at everything, from the seating to the graphics that we use, to get a holistic view of the shop from the outside right through to the counter."
Moyes says the aim has been to tailor a healthy, upmarket offer. In addition to that, speed of service is key. Given its smaller size, the High Holborn, London outlet visited is more geared towards quick turnaround take-away than coffee shop lounging. And the local competition is ample. Across the road is a Starbucks, and a few doors down is a Paul bakery, while nearby reside a host of fast food and sandwich outlets such as Pret A Manger. So how does O’Briens hope to stand out from this crowded environment?
"Neither Starbucks nor Paul offer made-to-order sandwiches - it tends to be the independents who are doing that, and there aren’t many of those," he explains. There is, of course, one made-to-order sandwich outlet, growing rapaciously: Subway. But despite Subway’s rapid development, Moyes has O’Briens eyeing a different market. "Subway is more focused on the takeaway element; we’re going in for larger coffee shops and shopping-centre locations.
"There is some impersonalisation that comes with the larger chains," he continues. "But because all our shops are owner-operated, it brings an independent feel. They may be offering better service, because it is their own business. Also, the Irishness comes through in terms of the welcome that we give and the service that we provide. Many of our franchise partners are Irish."
On the products front, O’Briens is flagging up its ethical coffee with point-of-sale throughout the shop. Beans are now bought direct from the grower, with a large percentage sourced from Ethiopia, he claims. "That ethical stance is very important for us."
Pastries are baked-off on the premises. O’Briens has its own-branded water, with a range of branded smoothies also planned. Sandwich-wise it has a range of top-selling shamrock-shaped bread carriers, supplied by Delice de France. "People want to move away from the basic baguette or basic sandwich. That is still, of course, our core business, but customers do want something a bit different now, particularly when it comes to health."
In extending the hot offer, it found huge regional variations in demand for products such as quiche. "What sells in Manchester doesn’t sell in Holborn, and what sells in Glasgow doesn’t sell in Manchester. I think that’s one thing I kind of knew, but has now been proven! You can’t have a one-size-fits-all offering. It’s very much up to the local operator to decide what’s right for them." Outside blackboard stands highlight specials and allow the local operator flexibility on deals.
There has also been a shift away from largely focusing on the lunchtime trade to extending the breakfast and afternoon elements.
"All the breakfast products are on the menu boards and they stay up all day - that was about introducing a decent range of morning goods, croissants and Danish. In the afternoon, we introduce a cake range, particularly in our bigger shops, so we’re moving away from just the lunchtime business."
Other features include wi-fi internet access, which is being rolled out in Scotland, where there are EPoS systems with broadband in place. So what’s been the most successful gain from the refit? "The speed of service," he says emphatically. "We now offer pre-made sandwiches, which are freshly made that morning and put into the serve-over."
Previously the only ready-made sandwiches were sold packaged in the chiller cabinet, which never sold well. "Taking them into the serve-over has worked much better because it looks much fresher. Plus, the Turbochef oven has improved our speed of service, so our throughput is much higher than it was before, particularly over that busy lunchtime period when people may only have 20 minutes."
In the shop’s design, the green and black scheme has been integrated throughout the store, from menu boards to bags to window stickers. The logo has been employed more extensively, from the uniforms to the mirrors, to cups and doormats. "We have a uniformity of branding that we didn’t have before," he says. "The marketing has got some uniformity to it now whereas it was rather bitty before," he concludes. "People are dwelling more in the shops than they did, and we can see a very quick payback in the uplift in sales that our franchisees are getting." n
=== The brief ===
The makeover, which was carried out by in-house architects and designers, approached all aspects of the shop, from the outside graphics on windows right through to counter displays and furniture. The biggest focus was on improving speed of service and broadening appeal away from its previous focus on young professional women. Being a franchise operation, owners decide whether to carry out the upgrade, while O’Briens provides the marketing nous such as the graphics scheme.
The stores have a more contemporary look, with higher lighting levels. The graphics on the window outside highlight its products: cakes, smoothies, sandwiches etc, which replaces the tagline: ’Your sandwich made in front of you’. Big external graphics are used to highlight new product ranges, such as iced drinks. Soft seating has replaced harder seating. Menu boards have been heavily rationalised. Pre-made products have been introduced into the serve-over units, whereas before it was purely made-to-order.
Bakery snack lines, such as traybakes, have been introduced, with an impulse unit for cakes at the till point. Mirrors on the walls, which create the feeling of greater space, are scripted with O’Briens’ logos. A new Turbochef oven heats products more quickly than the roller grills previously used. Even the recommended in-store music list has been improved to give a better ambience.
=== Vital statistics ===
Model: Franchise, with 300 stores worldwide (120 in Ireland, 100 in the UK)
Turnover: £68m in 2006
Customer profile: wide demographic
Products: made-to-order sandwiches, croissants, Danish, traybakes and muffins, hot wraps, smoothies, ice drinks and Fairtrade coffee
Refit timescale: Up to two days; often the refit can take place overnight; the aim is to refit 70% of the shops by the end of the year
Typical store size: High Holborn, London has 20 covers, though O’Briens has outlets of up to 250 covers
Cost of refit: £15,000 in High Holborn, London; the oven is the costliest element
Uplift: the 25 stores that have been refitted have seen between 10%-30% uplift in like-for-like sales
Extras: outside catering accounts for up to 50% of an O’Briens store’s turnover, and point-of-sale information is available in-store