Fuel retailers have been identified by the government as one of the keys to keeping emergency personnel mobile, and making the transportation of vital supplies possible, during the coronavirus lockdown. But while the fuel retailing industry has been working flat out to ensure it can operate safely for customers and staff, retailers are also having to cope with a massive fall in sales with some reporting fuel volumes down as much as 80%. PRA chairman Brian Madderson explained: "We have been and will continue to be exceedingly pro-active with support for members." Madderson and PRA commercial manager, Gordon Balmer, have been in daily contact with the government’s Energy Resilience Team, and a daily briefing by MILS, the PRA’s legal specialists, has been posted on the members-only section of the website (www.ukpra.co.uk).
Madderson and Balmer have also been holding daily teleconferences with some of the larger dealer groups to update them, and to enable them to share examples of best practice. One of the most recent requirements imposed has been the need to control distancing between customers. Madderson said many forecourts are now placing strips on the floor at tills so customers can maintain the required 2m distance between them, and this technique has also had to be extended to some self-service coffee machines. He explained: "An Environmental Health officer in Kent wanted a forecourt shop to close down its coffee machine because customers using it were not keeping the required distance between them, so they introduced tape strips to encourage customers to keep gaps between them."
With the Bank of England conceding that bank notes can carry bacteria and viruses, some forecourts have also switched to payment by card only. In a briefing note Balmer said: "If you do decide to restrict payment to card only I would like to stress the importance that this should include all fuel cards for clarity the fuel cards that you accepted pre-emergency. This is business- critical as many of the blue light fleets and key businesses rely on payment by fuel card."
There has also been a boost for contactless payment as the upper limit was raised from £30 to £45 on April 1, which should allow more customers to pay this way.
Oil companies have also reacted quickly to the situation. Bernie Williamson, Shell’s UK general manager, commented: "The frontline staff at Shell sites and other forecourt retailers are vital to helping keep the nations’ key workers on the road, not just because the government asked us all to stay open but because they know they are providing a community service. Similarly, we have seen our customers are also appreciating Shell’s convenience stores and Deliveroo/Uber Eats home delivery services right now, as supermarkets struggle to keep up with demand.
"That said, we have to acknowledge that some retailers’ staff are still anxious about coming to work and we need to listen to those concerns. Shell has already started to respond to this by introducing Perspex screens and social distancing and hygiene-related signage in our stores, on which we have already had good feedback from retailers’ staff. Moreover, we have taken a very hands-on approach to helping guide retailers through these difficult next few weeks and recently held a webcast for these staff with a Shell health doctor, which helped share Shell’s position on the issues arising from the virus and key facts in line with the government and public health authorities’ advice."
Meanwhile, BP said in a market statement that it was boosting precautions to protect both staff and customers at its retail sites with increased cleaning; providing personal protective equipment for staff; installing screens; and implementing social distancing in its stores. It said emergency service vehicles can refuel for free at its retail stations and that food from cafeterias it has closed is being donated to foodbanks and charities.
It has also pledged that for the next three months no BP employees will be laid off as a result of cost cutting.
While fuel volumes have been very poor many forecourt shops have seen their highest-ever shop takings. Goran Raven of Ravens Budgens, Abridge in Essex, says he’s been in the industry many years and the only thing he can think of that remotely comes close to the pressures sites have been/are still under, was the fuel strike of about 20 years ago.
"March began as a normal month for us tracking March 2019 fairly closely until the 11th that’s when the shop sales just went through the roof. Comparing March 12-31, 2019 versus 2020 we have seen a 70% uplift in shop sales including the busiest day’s trading we have ever had."
Goran says the supply chain is stretched way beyond breaking point. "For the last two weeks I have had more empty shelves than full. Bookers are doing their best, but we are receiving nowhere near what we need to restock properly or that we could sell. Local suppliers have dug us out of holes. Local butchers, bakers etc have gone above and beyond, so we have had some level of constant delivery. Even so it still does not feed the demand. There are too many products we cannot get, all of which are basic grocery lines. We started imposing limits on what people could buy very early on, even so that has not stopped the store being emptied as soon as stock has been put out."
Finally, other examples of best practice that have been shared by PRA members include:
Recommending customers use gloves when handling fuel pumps;
Cleaning fuel pumps very often;
Staff to wear gloves;
Staff to wash hands every 15 to 30 minutes;
Serving through night hatch;
Providing a free delivery service for vulnerable locals;
Moving to 24 hours as it allows staff to deep clean and re-stock.
Forecourt operators are being advised by the Car Wash Association (CWA) that they can continue to operate automatic car washes and jet washes under the current coronavirus regulations, but hand car washing and other types of valeting have been outlawed.
The guidance comes after discussions between the CWA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). They agreed:
Automatic Car Washes (ACW) by definition do not involve the use of staff.
The operation of rollover car washes requires the driver/passengers to remain seated in the car so no contact with other persons.
The operation of jet washes involves the customer using handheld equipment, which is situated in separate covered or open bay areas, so 2m distancing is easily maintained.
Any form of auto or manual valeting afterwards, such as use of vacuum, hand drying etc should cease due to potential distancing difficulty.
Hand Car Washes (HCW) by definition involve significant number of persons (usually four to six per vehicle if valeting included) whether undertaken by own staff or a third party and therefore should not be undertaken on any site.