A significant new retail entrant to the forecourt sector could make its presence felt in 2014, according to Steve Rodell, director and head of retail at specialist property adviser Christie & Co. "They have significant capital funding and could buy a national chain if they are able to find the right deal," he confirmed.
"It’s a question of how quickly can I find something for them. They’re actively looking for anything from a small batch of sites to a large group. They’re a UK-based consortium of people from fuel, retail and finance, who are coming together, recognising where the forecourt business is going. Their interest is mainly about the shop the retail element of the consortium comes from grocery, and has been involved in convenience in a big way until recently. The fuel retailer has significant links in the industry, but is not currently in the market.
"We’re working on a little package now. If we can get it agreed in the nuts and bolts format we can hopefully get it delivered probably the beginning of Q2.
"If it doesn’t come off and we have to go and look for something else it might be into the second half. There’s also something running in the background that’s very large as well. They are a significant new player who would slot into the Top 50. If they did the deal that they’d like to do they’d certainly send shockwaves through the market."
Rodell also revealed that Christie & Co is working in conjunction with the PRA to produce a ’toolkit’ for retailers to provide them with the right information to challenge planning applications for supermarket filling stations in their area. It would show how, although fuel prices dip when a supermarket comes along, it also wipes out about four or five local petrol forecourts.
"We’re not too fussed about the supermarket coming along because we know that customers like supermarkets we’re trying to be non-partisan, because we also know that customers like cheap fuel. But what we’re saying is that if a supermarket petrol station opens, and five independents within a five-mile radius close or are detrimentally impacted as a result, you end up with less choice for customers because there are less petrol stations. What may well happen is that prices do dip when the supermarket first comes along, but once they get control of the market, is there evidence out there to suggest they bring the prices back up again? In that case all they’ve actually done is wipe out five forecourts."
Rodell was speaking at the launch of Christie & Co’s review of the market Business Outlook 2014. He said: "Not for the first time, fuel and petrol forecourt businesses grabbed the headlines, with the future of the independent fuel retailers in question.
"The shift in fuel volume share to the supermarkets described as a ’massacre’ of independent retailers by PRA chairman Brian Madderson saw dealer volumes down to 1.8mlpa per site, compared to 12mlpa for supermarkets. Not only did this signal that dealers were being overtaken by the supermarkets, but it also raised serious questions about fuel resilience in many UK regions.
"On a more positive note, the continuing disposal of forecourts by oil companies looking to concentrate on the supply-side created many opportunities for dealers, who continued responding to the supermarket threat through diversification. However, the threat will remain considerable as our own research revealed that for every 50 new forecourts opened each year, 40 are opened by the supermarkets."
The report says one of the significant trends in the market is independent convenience store operators seeking strength in numbers afforded by symbol branding. Rodell said: "Many forecourt shops do not trade under a recognisable brand. To attract more transient business we expect to see operators move to and switch between brands in a ’compare the market’ type exercise in order to secure the best deals. Significantly, the symbols are moving ever more into the forecourt space, with Spar and Nisa now offering branded-forecourt fuel and retail services."
However 2014 looks quite positive with petrol forecourts being the flavour of the month for new buyers, according to Rodell.
"There are, interestingly a lot of new-to-industry purchases coming in," he said. "The term ’petrol stations for sale’ is the sixth most sought-after term in Google that we track. It is very interesting when you think of the number of other sectors that people are likely to search for such as ’business for sale’, ’pubs for sale’ and so on. But what it shows is that there are a lot of new people coming into the market who want petrol stations.
"They’re all private individuals, independents, some of whom are commission operators in London that want to move back to the regions and can get better value for money out there. Some of them are from overseas, so they may have a petrol station in Abu Dhabi for example, and they’re coming into this country and want to buy a business. After all, we have a lot of ethnic operators in this country with good forecourt businesses who have links with their home countries, and maybe news of their success is getting back.
"These guys are tending to buy forecourts at the bottom end of the market, and the sellers of those sites move up into the middle, and so the hierarchy continues and everyone aspires to having a Euro Garages-type site.
"It’s a healthy situation because new entrants to the market bring new ideas, and the smaller sites appeal because they can survive on smaller margins than required by the bigger operators."