Everywhere we look these days things seem to be cloud based. What does this really mean? Many companies give you free space on the cloud to store files such as photos. It seems the idea is that you get a small amount of storage for free and are then enticed to purchase more space as you need it.
Christmas and the shopping frenzy that surrounds it is fast approaching. I know it's still only November, but as we have a festive edition of Product News I thought I'd add my festive tuppence ha'penny's worth.
Excitement all round for the forecourt sector last month, what with the rather spectacular Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards (see full report, starting on page 49 and also the awards website www.forecourttraderawards.co.uk); and then the Shell announcement confirming the sale of around 250 sites.
We have recently published the third edition of our annual look at the convenience sector, the Local Shop Report, which contains some great new insights into local shops, the people who run them and the communities they serve. The main story from the report is one of good news the sector is now worth £37.4bn, and is responsible for creating over 386,000 jobs in local communities across the UK. This is a significant increase on last year and means that c-stores have again outgrown the grocery market as a whole.
For more than 20 years BOSS, the British Oil Security Syndicate, has worked closely with fuel retailers, police, government departments and other agencies to reduce crime. So how disappointing was it to hear from Norman Baker, the Minister of State for Crime Prevention and the chief constable of Durham during the summer that they blamed retailers for customers who drive-off without paying for fuel? Very disappointing indeed, but it did highlight how ill-informed they are regarding the issues we face.
Well thank goodness for that. The Murco network has been sold at last (see News, page 4) after four years on the market. It got to the stage where it seemed like it was never going to happen, and as in a 'whodunnit' that runs for too long, people seemed to have stopped even wondering about who indeed would be 'doing it'.
The recent news that the Klesch Group will acquire the UK refinery and terminal assets of Murphy Oil Company and that, around the same time, Motor Fuel Group will acquire its retail assets plus marketing and distribution to the dealers is welcome on several fronts.
Well, the summer seems to have come and gone all too quickly, but this year has seen car wash revenues increase for the first time in many years. Is it just the weather, or are we winning the battle against the rogue hand washes? Perhaps it is just that the rogue washes have become legitimate and their prices have had to increase, making the uneven playing field level again.
Amazing to visit the Phillips 66 Humber Refinery last month, and see the complex web of miles of pipework close up (see industry focus page 24), and wonder at the millions of chemical reactions that are constantly taking place within such dramatic structures.
In the past few months, all eyes have been on the European Parliament elections and the nomination of a new president of the European Commission.
I continue to be amazed by 3D printing. The latest printers are now being retailed at below $250. While this is only a toy, in reality it proves the point that new technologies still exist and abound. Amazon in the US, for example, has launched a new service where you can customise jewellery and small items utilising 3D printing. Where is this going next?
Call me sad but I like a survey. I don't always believe them, but I like to compare myself with those who've been surveyed.
Fuel retailers are extremely passionate about their business. They have to be to deal with all the daily aggro whether it's stock problems, equipment breakdowns, needy customers, or those wretched drivers who seem to think they can drive off without paying for fuel.
They also have to be passionate to make the huge investment in time and money that it takes to build a state-of-the-art location such as the Chartman Group's Winning Post site in Exeter (page 21). It took years of dealing with planning officials, burdensome bureaucracy, tactically waiting for the Little Chef next door to shut down, along with all the decisions that go into a major construction project. But eventually the work was completed and the company achieved its goal of creating a 'flagship' site that would turn heads.
It is also this kind of passion that has seen so many entries for our Forecourt Trader awards. The first round of judging is completed and we were amazed at the number of developments in the past year, the number of retailers sticking their necks out to invest in their businesses to make them look better, work better, and make them more successful.
Trouble is, it's this kind of passion that also makes retailers extremely upset when they get a visit from our Shop Doctor who declines to give them five stars in each category. Point one, he never does. He has no agenda, he speaks as he finds, observing what he sees and experiences as a customer, and then offers business advice from the point of view of a retailer with long experience in the industry. Like any customer, he might visit your site on the wrong day when certain things aren't quite as they should be; or he might not be familiar with why things have been done in a certain way. Nor are your customers.
He may have got the wrong impression of Rusdene Garage's Meon Hut site. When I saw it, I would have given it five stars. This month we're doing on-the-road judging so make sure your sites are in five star order!
We've just released the results of an ambitious new project to find out what retailers, councillors and the general public think about the services on their high street. The report, called the Community Barometer, shows what people want in their local area and what they think government priorities should be in the future.
When asked about which services they would want more or less of in their local area, retailers saw banks and Post Offices as the two services that they were most keen to see an increase in. Overall, all groups (retailers/consumers/councillors) believed that Post Offices had the most positive impact on their local area. Convenience stores were also a popular choice, especially with councillors 50% of whom thought that independent convenience stores had the most positive impact. As expected, pawnbrokers and betting shops did not fare well at all.
It is clear from the report that people are missing dedicated services like post offices and banks, as well as specialist food offers. This is one of the reasons a growing number of retailers are taking on things like cash machines, Post Office Locals and food-to-go counters in store. More than half of the stores in the sector now have a cash machine and food-to-go is one of the fastest-growing categories in convenience. As retailers take on these important community functions, it is vital they make sure local people and councillors notice that they have done this and give them the credit they deserve.
One of the most interesting findings from the report was the unanimous agreement between retailers, councillors and consumers about the importance of intervention on business rates. We would expect retailers to see this as a priority issue, as they are the ones directly affected by rising rates bills, but for consumers to rate a reduction in business rates a priority ahead of other issues like parking shows that campaigns from trade associations and the media are striking a chord with the general public.
The overall message of the report is simple: people want diversity on their high streets. Specialist shops like butchers, independent stores and financial services are still desirable, and it's up to the government and local councils to provide the conditions that allow these businesses to thrive.
It's hard to believe but some police forces still treat theft of fuel as a civil offence. Revised Home Office guidance for Making Off Without Payment, issued in April, makes it clear that where an incident is intentional then a crime has been committed.
At the British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS), we've redoubled our efforts to ensure that after incidents where customers deliberately drive off without paying, the police investigate and record the incident as a crime, tracing and pursuing offenders and then bringing them to justice.
In 2009, improvements to the national rules around the recording by police of these offences were made, thanks to tireless campaigning by BOSS. The Home Office's National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) has now been further amended to clarify that, on the balance of probability, deliberate making off without payment is a criminal offence as defined by law. Repeated incidents of no means of payment are also evidence of criminal behaviour.
What has become clear to BOSS is that the collection of evidence needs to be effective and accurate. If it is not, then the police may have reason not to pursue the investigation into these reports of crime.
Here is where our Payment Watch scheme has helped BOSS members. Following tried and tested processes, BOSS has made it less cumbersome to collect and report information about offences. Analysis of reports by BOSS has identified many persistent and repeat offenders, leading to successful prosecutions.
At BOSS we want to work in partnership with the police on behalf of our retail members. There is still much work to be done to show the police that by taking a co-ordinated approach to forecourt crime, detection rates and positive intervention can be significantly improved.
If any BOSS member is not getting the response they feel they should from their local police then, as long as staff are collecting and keeping the proper evidence, BOSS can take steps to challenge the police. Simply let us have the details and we will do what we can to address the issues raised.
But please remember, if you think it's a genuine mistake and not deliberate, then it is not a police matter and you should be clear on this before you make the call. The police are not here to act as debt collectors.
While travelling through France recently, I purchased a fabulous product called Nutella & Go! That exclamation is theirs, not mine, but it deserves it because it is so good. Remember those KP dips that were all the rage years ago? Pots of chocolate with biscuit fingers to dip in well this is like them, only better.
So you get a pot of delicious Nutella and a few biscuits to dip in mmmmm. I was very excited about this and wondered why it wasn't available here.
But upon my return lo and behold within the news in the new Forecourt Trader Business Builder emailer (sign up for all the latest news, if you haven't aready done so), the imminent launch of Nutella & Go! in the UK was announced. Yippee I thought, but then read that I am too old to buy the product as it's aimed at teens and young adults. But buy it I definitely will. You see, while scoffing mine in the car on my journey through France, Mr West said he'd always been puzzled why I didn't buy Nutella at home. Simple really if I bought it, I'd eat it and probably at the rate of one tub at a time because it's so damn delicious. And it may be full of hazelnuts but it's also full of calories so the new size & Go! will suit me just fine as long as they're not on a 'two for one' deal of course.
Another product that I consumed on my French adventure was cola Calippo why, oh why, can't we have Calippos in cola flavour here? And, just prior to my break, I'd read that Asda was stocking a white chocolate and strawberry Magnum in an exclusive deal. That's not fair, I thought, until I tasted one while abroad too sickly for me.
Moving on, and I must say that I used to be quite impressed with French motorway services but not any more. I think it's because ours have improved so greatly yes they're expensive but at least with all the concessions you have a decent choice of food. And don't get me started on motorway service toilettes in France. They obviously don't have a version of our Forecourt Loo competition over there, or if they do, they're going for the 'worst' rather than 'best' prize. What's with their aversion to toilet seats and lids? Do people steal them or something?
And the smells. Have they never heard of a cleaning rota? Or air freshener?
AlI I can say is ooh là là!
Apart from it being really rather pleasing to get the words 'England won the World Cup' on the cover in the very month that the global football carnival kicks off, the latest industry figures show there are other things to be excited about (see Fuel Market Review, page 26).
On May 14, the Prime Minister said that a Scottish 'no' vote would open the way for the transfer of more powers to Edinburgh. The PRA has been adapting quickly to the new challenges that have arisen through the substantial powers that have already been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and to the Regional Assemblies representing Wales and Northern Ireland.
What an amazing country we live in: floods and gale force winds at Christmas and then hot sun and cold spells when spring arrives. This time the weather suits the wash industry to a tee.
If I were a cynic, I might say that Tesco's decision to ban sweets from the checkouts of its Express and Metro stores was a PR ploy to overshadow its recent financial failures or win back people who believe it to be the 'big, bad wolf' of retailing.
So last month the Government finally produced its report on the refining and fuel import sectors in the UK (it was due early January) and there seems to have been a collective gasp of disappointment (News Extra page 10). Chris Hunt, UKPIA director general (see column page 7) felt it failed to fully address the issues facing the industry, in particular the regulatory burdens imposed on the sector by the legislators. Considering there used to be 19 refineries in the UK 40 years ago, and there's now only seven with one or two teetering on the edge he does have a point.
As I write this column, our downstream oil industry in the UK is on the threshold of a new relationship with government, one which we sincerely hope heralds meaningful change.
An interesting topic in retail every now and then is that of electronic shelf-edge labels (ESEL). These have been around for many, years but as yet no one in the UK has deployed them in any quantity. Historically the ESEL has been expensive and semi manual in so much as you had to stick a product ID/barcode to the price display. Too much effort!
No-one puts a gun to your head when you enter a convenience store or supermarket and makes you buy certain items. But you'd think that was the case if you read the latest findings from Which?.
First let me congratulate the team at Bodmin Moor Services in Cornwall, part of the Chartman Group, for their admirable accomplishment in winning this year's award for the UK's Best Forecourt Loo (see news story on page 4).
We have had a run of major announcements affecting retail from George Osborne in his Budgets and Autumn Financial Statements, so by his standards the latest one was a low key affair. The compelling statistics were there: the economy is back in growth (2.4%) and the number of people unemployed has fallen again by 63,000.
There are one million reasons why BOSS has had a significant impact on forecourt crime over the past three years. This month BOSS recoveries for No Means of Payment (NMoP) cases reached a staggering £1m as a direct result of the BOSS Payment Watch scheme.
Three cheers for David Charman, whose Parkfoot Garage in West Malling, Kent, scooped the Convenience Retailer of the Year award last month. I don't live too far away from this site so managed to take a look recently, and it really is very impressive. Where I live, the forecourts aren't that special but my trip to West Malling was worthwhile as David's site really does stand out from the rest of the crowd.
So the final tranche of Esso's company- owned network is now the focus of ambitious forecourt entrepreneurs as the official push to sell the southern block of 200 sites gets under way. Whether they're new to the industry or established fuel retailers hoping to expand their networks, they will all be subject to Esso's lengthy and rigorous processes, so there won't be a conclusion to the bidding any time soon.
After four years at the helm of the Petrol Retailers Association, it is good to be able to pen a more positive note at the start of 2014.
What a start to the car washing year rain, rain and more rain. The only consolation we can take from this is that there will be no water shortages around the corner. Famous last words?
If you're not already selling e-cigarettes, you really should be. That's because a hot-off-the-press report from Mintel says the market has achieved a stunning 340% growth over the past year, from an estimated £44m in 2012 to an estimated £193m last year. Wow is all I can say and get them on your shelves while you still can!
The major oil brands have come in for a bit of flack in this issue and you sense that the balance of power is shifting. The consistent message from independents is that they're just not getting the kind of service that they need to develop their businesses.
Stepping into a New Year calls for reflection and 2013 was a momentous one for our downstream oil industry.
Many rumours abounded in 2013 about technology and what it could do for us. This year the push seems to be on three key technology areas and I bring a few to the fore in this article. The main emphasis falls into the following areas: mobile, wearable technology and 3D printing.
What have Quaker Oat So Simple breakfast biscuits, Maltesers Merryteaser, Mars Minis, Persil Small & Mighty and Tropicana Trop 50 all got in common?
And so another year begins, and apart from the rather bleak weather there's definitely an increasingly positive feel coming from the industry as we head into 2014. Yes, it's still very tricky and competitive out there, and it's certainly no time to relax the strict disciplines and practices learned in recent times. But business seems to have generally been improving in the past few months, with many retailers reporting better sales over the Christmas period compared with the previous year. The economy also seems to be inching its way forward at last.
There is a growing consensus that radical change to the business rates system is required. We have been arguing for a long time that if the government wants to see businesses investing and creating jobs, then it has to take clear steps to reduce the costs that stand in its way.
How many times can a motorist fill up, claim to have left their method of payment behind, promise to pay within a week but then fail to do so? Once, possible, twice, doubtful, three times or more suggests treatment for Alzheimers or they're behaving in a dishonest manner and should be treated as criminals.
Happy New Year to you all let's hope it's a good one! It's always difficult to predict the future but, at this time of year, industry people are falling over themselves to give it a go. Take Sainsbury's, for instance, which has said shoppers are better than ever at finding value really? Not a great surprise but surely, it's a case of 'needs must' for most of them? A top bod from the grocery multiple adds that value isn't always about the lowest price but increasingly about quality, provenance and ethics something he calls the 'value of values'. However, there are still thousands are shoppers out there who can't afford provenance and ethics, and so are simply looking for good value.
We may be hurtling towards the end of the year, but there's no sign yet of a quiet night in by the Christmas tree for the likes of Brian Madderson, and the industry's new best friend Alan Powell, the tax expert who is described as having successfully challenged the government on a number of contentious issues.
We all remember the 'panic buying' in late March 2012 when there was the prospect of industrial action by Unite tanker drivers that could have interrupted fuel supplies to forecourts across the UK. This situation had been inflamed by ill-judged advice from a Cabinet Minister that encouraged motorists to stock up on road fuels at home.
As we enter the money months of car washing, take time to reflect on what has happened within our industry over the past few years.
It's that most wonderful time of the year Christmas, of course. And, as an independent retailer, it's your time to shine.
The Regeneration Forum hosted by the PRA last month, was extremely illuminating and not just in terms of the information aired, particularly the presentation about duty deferment (of which more later).
As I write this column the focus of our attention has been on the uncertainty about the future of the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland.
Question. Where should the site manager/operator spend most of their time? Answer. In the shop, looking after customers and ensuring that stock levels are correct and that the store is well merchandised, promotions to the fore.
Firstly, many congratulations to all the finalists and winners at last month's glittering awards ceremony (full report starts on page 45). Particular praise goes, of course, to this year's Forecourt Trader of the Year winners, Zuber and Mohsin Issa of Euro Garages, who were too modest to come up on stage to collect their award as it was announced, but encouraged members of their much-valued staff to be recognised for their considerable achievements.
Criminals who operate on UK forecourts come in all shapes and sizes, from individual drive-off offenders to organised gangs who steal fuel in bulk. At BOSS we recognise the need to match these shapes and sizes to have a strong deterrent effect or, failing that, to identify, apprehend and bring offenders to justice. That's why we've developed strong partnerships, not only within the industry but across government, law enforcement and with specialist agencies whose expertise supports our drive to tackle forecourt crime.
Sometimes it would be nice to know what the future holds. Whether the recession is well and truly behind us, for example, or even what the weather will actually do.