Fears that pay-at-pump technology could have a detrimental effect on forecourt shop sales have been dispelled in a new study by shopper research specialist HIM.

The company interviewed 680 forecourt customers across 63 different sites at the end of 2005 and concluded that, in fact, the reverse could be true. HIM director Tom Fender said: “Forty three per cent of fuel-only shoppers support the idea of pay-at-pump and say they would use it if introduced by forecourts. This would then allow those who only wanted to buy fuel to do so quickly and efficiently; and it would reduce queues in the shop giving shoppers more time to browse.

“Some people will be surprised that pay-at-pump is used far more than people think. Retailers and suppliers have got to realise that once in a while customers will just want to buy fuel, so they should let them do that.

“Today those customers might be buying only fuel, but tomorrow they might come in and use the shop. Furthermore, a staggering 94% of forecourt customers who came in to buy fuel actually only bought fuel, so retailers and suppliers have not succeeded in getting them to buy anything else. They should therefore give them pay-at-pump and let them quickly get on their way.”

The survey, which was conducted on different days and at different times across one week, found that 22% of people were travelling on business but not commuting, while 35% were either on their way to or from work. Said Fender: “Many people think forecourt customers are predominantly ‘white van man’ types when in fact many of them are commuters and professional people. Retailers need to understand this more, and then provide better communication of their store size and range. They need to stock food that appeals to upmarket consumers.”

Health is apparently top of mind with all shoppers, including those using forecourts. Indeed it was cited in the survey as one of the top reasons why shoppers are buying less confectionery than they used to. “Health is another reason why forecourts need to overcome some perceptions of forecourts catering only for the ‘white van man’,” said Fender. “Customers want healthy options – they want to be able to buy healthy sandwiches and bottles of water. Perhaps healthy snacking zones should be introduced?”

He also suggested putting in fast-lane chillers for soft drinks because one-in-five shoppers said they “just never think of buying soft drinks in a forecourt shop”.

Confectionery is one of the most widely bought items in a forecourt and the research found that counter displays could definitely help drive sales, with 40% of respondents saying they would be more likely to buy sweets if they were next to the till. “Products definitely benefit from being in the main traffic aisle,” said Fender.

After counter displays, the next most effective way to encourage people to buy more confectionery was the use of promotional bins. However, the HIM research found that most fuel-only customers are in their cars on their own, which questions the relevance of multibuy promotions, such as ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘buy two for a special price’ over the more simple money-off or ‘extra free’ promotions. Said Fender: “Shoppers like the idea of ‘two for one’ deals but do they add more complexity to the shoppers’ trip? Maybe it’s worth trying both promotional mechanics (‘two for one’ and simple money-off discounts) at the same time on the same product to track sales uplifts?”

Unfortunately price is still a problem in forecourts, or rather perception of price is. “This latest research found that price was still the biggest barrier to sales yet all our other research found that shoppers didn’t actually know the prices of items so it really is a perception problem. Obviously those shops that are part of a grocery chain such as Somerfield or United Co-op, have an advantage with their better price image. They also tend to have more promotions, a wider fresh and chilled range and more staff working. All these things help generate a favourable impression of a top-up shop.

“Unfortunately, some oil company shops are still trying to shake off their ‘rip-off’ price image of yesteryear. I think forecourt retailers need to really start cranking up the communication of their prices – they need to look at c-stores like Spar and Budgens, where there’s much better communication of value.”

Communication is a problem in another area too, as the latest research found that some shoppers still don’t realise the extensive range of products that are sold in a forecourt shop. When presented with a list, many didn’t think the forecourt shop sold basics like milk, bread, drinks and confectionery. They all seemed to know that the shop sold chocolates but didn’t think it sold dairy and chilled lines so there’s a big opportunity for retailers to communicate their range on the forecourt.