As the final winner was announced at September’s glamorous Forecourt Trader Awards ceremony, the Garner Group’s table could not have been more shocked.

"We were absolutely flabbergasted to win," says director Tim Garner. "We didn’t think we’d won at all there seemed to be so many other worthy winners. If you’d have been filming our table you would have seen such surprise and excitement. But it’s all been rather lovely. We’ve had great feedback from so many people lots of emails from other independents, big and small. We’ve also had lots of visits, with people asking many questions about how and why we did what we did. It’s been a great morale boost for everyone in the business. Being a small family independent operator, to win such a prestigious award as Forecourt Trader of the Year means an awful lot to us. It means all the hard work has paid off."

What is even more rewarding is the fact that this is the second time in five years that the Garner Group a 60-year-old family business has walked away with the top award. In 2014 they won Forecourt Trader of the Year with Portsbridge Service Station, in Cosham, Portsmouth, which was rebuilt with great imagination and flair, on an awkward-shaped plot. Ironically they sold this operation which they regarded as their flagship site in order to help finance the redevelopment of what would become their second award-winning convenience forecourt, Woolmer Service Station in Bordon, Hampshire.

"We’re so pleased to have won twice in five years," enthuses Tim. "But when we visited our old site recently, it felt very old hat. Standards have gone up enormously since we won it last time."

Woolmer Service Station is located on a roundabout junction that serves an industrial estate, a large residential area and the centre of Bordon and Whitehill. The forecourt and convenience shop re-opened in March 2019, following a seven-month closure in which the existing site was totally demolished and rebuilt. It had been originally developed by the Garners as a new-to-industry site in 1984, so it was long overdue for a complete transformation, which included razing the 400sq ft shop to the ground and replacing it with a shiny new 2,000sq ft Nisa/Co-op-branded convenience store. They also decided to reinforce the Garner’s entrepreneurial heritage, by featuring the family’s name at the front of the store and at the till-points.

Next to one of the town’s main employment areas, with large residential developments nearby, its customers are primarily local people and commuters. Competition is strong, with Esso and BP sites close by; a large Tesco supermarket less than 200m away and a Lidl within half a mile. "We knew we had to offer the ultimate fuel and convenience store experience to attract and keep our customers," explains Tim.

The new site features the latest in retail technology and forecourt innovation, including a thermally insulated steel building with huge space upstairs for office and staff room; highly efficient chilled and frozen display units; LED lighting; industry-leading pumps and software; a 100% renewable energy supply; plus EV charge points everything has been designed to minimise its environmental impact. The forecourt also features a separate pump for red diesel for the site’s agricultural, construction and boating customers. "As a team we spent many months finessing the layout and design of each element of the site, to make the best use of every millimetre of space and provide an outstanding experience for our customers and staff," explains Tim.

"Ultimately though, our success depends on our customers, so personal touch and customer service are vital. All staff undertake regular training in-house, through Nisa’s Retail Academy training programme and through the PRA’s training scheme. Staff go out of their way to help customers; from ordering in products requested by customers, to assisting with shopping or fuel.

"We actively engage with our customers in-store and through marketing channels such as social media, leaflets and dedicated internal and external media screens. We take our role in the community seriously and raise funds for local causes as part of Nisa’s ’Making a Difference Locally’ initiative. We also sponsor two local junior football teams."

The store also boasts a broad range of Nisa and Co-op-branded products, freshly prepared hot and cold food-to-go, Cook frozen ready meals, Amazon lockers, Collect+, and a free-to-use ATM.

Customers have been impressed with the range, the design and the smart ambience of the store. Sales have grown on a weekly basis: "We’re ahead of forecast and growing steadily, and that’s really exciting for us," says Tim. "Fuel volumes are also very strong at the moment. Shell is working very well for us, the initiatives are good. We wanted to be up there in the first division and I think we made exactly the right choice."

But despite all the success, Tim says the team are all still learning and tweaking the offer: "The hardest thing is, once you’re up there, keeping it there. This business is a gamble to a degree, but you’ve got to trust your instincts and touch wood for us it’s paid off. We’re delighted with the results and now it’s a case of pushing onwards and upwards."