McKillens of Church Street, Ballymena is celebrating 90 years in business this year.
Launched in 1926, McKillens has been at the retail heart of the town ever since.
The well-known family business has gone from strength to strength during that time, expanding into new departments and buildings and even opening an in-store restaurant in recent years to cater for the complete shopping experience.
Now in its fourth generation of family, the famous shop was originally opened by the late Mr Thomas McKillen, a local farmer’s son who had served his apprenticeship in the shoe and drapery trade.
He was later joined in 1954 by his son Mr. Matthew McKillen who was responsible for major expansion in the business and the setting up of the famous children’s department. Mr. Matthew McKillen still plays an active role in the family business on a day to day basis. In those days he was greatly helped by Mr. James Dunlop who worked in the business for over 60 years ultimately as General Manager.
The current Managing Director is Mr Thomas McKillen, the founders’ grandson. He believes that their reputation of excellent customer service is the secret to their success.
Thomas explained: “The transformation in Ballymena since McKillens first opened its doors back in the 1920’s has been incredible.
“In recent times traditional on street retail has been facing stiff competition from online shopping but we have remained popular for so long because the foundations of our business have remained the same - we’re passionate about what we do and the quality of the goods we offer.”
“Above all else, we deliver excellent customer service - always going the extra mile for our customers.”
“I am proud to say that we are a fourth generation family business, with our son Jonathan, 27, recently joining our team in the children’s department and managing our social media.
“When you walk into our shop, we’ll remember to ask about your family and loved ones we chatted about last time. We always try to remember - it’s a rural Northern Ireland thing. We’re a family business, there’s a family atmosphere in our shop.”
“You don’t often get that family business approach elsewhere these days, and you definitely miss that human touch when shopping online.”
Having originally opened as a shoe business, Thomas says McKillens has retained its speciality and reputation whilst branching into exciting new areas of retail.
He commented: “First and foremost we sell shoes. Whilst we may have developed ladies and children’s fashions as well as handbag and gift departments and have our popular restaurant, it all surrounds our fantastic footwear selection.”
“Footwear has continued to be what we are known for. People come from all over Northern Ireland to get their feet properly sized and get their new school shoes fitted before the start of the term because our customer service is famous.
“It’s so important, particularly for children, to have properly fitted shoes.”
Thomas added that whilst shopping online may allow for a lot of variety, it does not give you the speciality knowledge, skill and range of services available at McKillens.
He said: “With the rise of online shopping we may only have something like five brands of shoes that are exclusive to us, but shopping online simply cannot compete with our customer service and product knowledge.
“We are centred around shoes, therefore our expertise, service and family atmosphere have allowed us to beat off stiff competition over the years, allowing our business to continue to grow and flourish.”
Thomas believes the shop will continue its family ethos, allowing the business continued success: “This will always be a family business. In fact many of our staff have worked here for their whole lives.”
“That’s what we’re all about. We’re a family business and we are passionate about our customer service - and I believe it shows.”