First impressions count in most walks of life and in the forecourt business it’s no different. A regular wash and brush-up and a regular lick of paint are basic, but essential, maintenance tasks, which will reassure passing motorists that you are a well-run business worth stopping for.
Kevin Phippen, service and operations director at Gilbarco Veeder-Root, which services sites for several major independent groups, as well as company-owned and dealer sites for BP, Esso and Total, says: "As fuel retail margins erode, forecourts are becoming very competitive. As with all customer-driven markets, the visual impact of the site is very important in attracting and retaining customers. Pumps that are clean, have well-maintained nozzles, hoses and panels, as well as clear displays, are what customers want - and indeed expect to see when they fill up."
More importantly, service providers agree that sound maintenance and a clean, tidy site go hand in hand: "An uncared for site is often a potentially unsafe environment for customers and operators alike," adds Phippen.
Huw Carey, sales director for Torex Retail’s petroleum and convenience unit, echoes this view: "While poor maintenance can lead to mechanical failure and loss of trading, it could also lead to injury, for which the site owner would be liable," he says. "For example, poor maintenance of external equipment can end up in panels hanging off, or holes or rust - all sorts of things that could lead to customer injury and that is the last thing the retailer wants."
Although retailers will be only too aware of the impact equipment failure can have on sales, another effect that isn’t always considered is the stress it puts on the employees dealing with frustrated customers, particularly if problems become too commonplace. "Forecourt staff are placed under considerable pressure when equipment fails," says Phippen. "The pressure overload often manifests itself in high staff turnover, high absenteeism and ultimately high instability."
However, proactive and preventative maintenance work can often be regarded as an added expense that cash-strapped retailers could well do without. But Phippen says regular check-ups actually cost much less than tackling unexpected equipment failure. "We know from experience that planned and predictive maintenance solutions have between a 50-60% cost when compared with the reactive option," he says. "They also reduce the secondary cost issues associated with lost fuel offer opportunities, brand image dilution, and lost shop sales."
Gilbarco Veeder-Root’s asset care programmes offer structured, scheduled maintenance activity, designed to reduce unplanned failure to minimum acceptable levels.
Phippen explains: "We utilise both planned and predictive tools. The planned maintenance schedules are compiled using sophisticated database analysis. This ensures that our inspections and tests major upon the most problematic issues and force root-cause solutions at the lowest practical cost. The predictive tools examine multiple parameters via a real-time data link and are able to identify failure points on end-of-life components before these incur lost time on the forecourt."
Gilbarco Veeder-Root’s asset care programme can be tailored to provide the best solution for the retailer, and can incorporate pumps, POS system, tank gauging and wet-stock management, as well as forecourt consumables and maintenance of ancillary equipment.
Such integrated maintenance solutions - where most equipment is covered by a single-service provider - allow retailers to focus on running their business, without the distraction and hassle of dealing with many different companies.
Ron Haacke, director of Petrol Express, opted for an integrated solution for the company’s portfolio of 63 sites. Provided by Torex Retail, the service covers all areas of forecourt maintenance, including hardware and software, as well as upgrades, service, repair and maintenance of pumps, site controllers and tank gauging equipment. Torex is also responsible for handling tank grade changes, pipework alterations and refurbished pump sales right through to acting as the prime contractor for forecourt refurbishment projects.
Explaining some of the benefits of this arrangement, Haacke says: "We don’t have to spend time ensuring a number of providers are familiar with our processes. When it comes to refurbishments, this means faster turnarounds and on repairs and maintenance, it means issues get resolved more quickly and equipment is up and running faster.
"The Torex engineers are fully trained across a variety of hardware and software so they are able to handle all combinations of problems that may arise, from issues with pumps from a variety of manufacturers through to software maintenance and upgrades, meaning they are a one-man-fix for all site problems. They’ve also taken time to gain an intimate understanding of all of the equipment we use."
The cost of a service contract depends on the equipment to be maintained and level of coverage being provided. Phippen says: "At Gilbarco Veeder-Root we offer a multitude of solutions, from ’break and fix’ options in response to a breakdown, through to a Complete Asset Care Programme. Financially the structures range from individual task invoicing through to full partnering contracts with Risk & Reward objectives. We always recommend that retailers come and discuss their objectives and allow us to suggest a range of alternatives that best suit the needs of their business."
The pumps are the backbone of the forecourt business. If one or more isn’t working, the forecourt can quickly become crowded and many drivers will go elsewhere rather join a queue. If it happens too often they may start to by-pass the site altogether.
While the number of inspections required depends on the volumes being dispensed and age and condition of the equipment, Mark Levallin, UK & Ireland sales manager at Dresser Wayne Pignone, says it should be no less than once a year. In addition to this, retailers themselves should carry out regular visual inspections and report any signs of damage or wear to the service provider. "They should not attempt to repair the fault themselves and must follow all relevant health and safety guidance," he adds.
When a customer reports a problem, if possible, a member of staff should fill the next car to confirm the fault. The details should then be logged in an incident book and kept on site. "They may not be there when the engineer attends and this information could be vital in diagnosing the fault correctly," says Lavallin.
Gilbarco’s Phippen says that retailers should also check inside pumps to ensure there are no leaks and the panels lock back into place correctly. Again though, unless they have received extensive training by a recognised body, retailers must be cautious. "We are always pleased to consider such training programmes for operators that allow them to go further towards maintaining their own forecourt," he adds.
For sites with older equipment, the issue of Stage II Vapour Recovery is also looming large. Following a consultation period earlier this year, the government is going ahead with plans that will mean some sites need to have specialist equipment installed on pumps by January 2010.
Canopies and signage should not be left out of the maintenance schedule, as these go a long way to creating that good first impression that will draw passing motorists to your site. Lighting is particularly important, says Steve Martin, managing director of forecourt signage specialist Xmo Strata. "It’s fairly well accepted in the industry that a poorly-lit site just won’t do the same level of volume," he says.
"Bad lighting is also a potential safety hazard and will make a site look far more vulnerable to gangs or opportunist thieves."
Most sites need a minimum of an annual inspection, if only to change to the fluorescent tubes and clean the signs, says Martin. "If some of the fluorescent tubes aren’t working the site will look tatty, he adds. "A problem we often come across is when a maintenance company, or even the retailer, has tried to save money by fitting the wrong type of tube. All the tubes in a sign, or lamps in the under-canopy, need to be the same. If they aren’t, it shows - and is an absolute pointer to a cheap maintenance schedule. If you see that, you’ll probably find other problems on the site, not just related to the signs."
Assuming it has not been closed by a drought order, the car wash is one of the most profitable pieces of equipment on the forecourt.
And with the life of the average machine now extending past the five-year norm, good maintenance is vital to prevent the wash quality from deteriorating, says Colin Russell, regional sales manager for Car Wash UK. "A machine that has regular planned maintenance will always perform more reliably and be available to the end user," he says.
Russell recommends a minimum of four service visits a year, and adds that maintenance is not just about mechanics, but also keeping the machine and wash bay clean and inviting.
Car Wash UK maintains over 1,000 installations nationwide and distributes Ceccato systems, but will service and maintain almost any type of machine, including jet wash systems, air pumps and vacuums. Service contracts are tailored to suit site-specific requirements and can include a fully comprehensive agreement with parts and labour. Russell says: "This can start from as little as £50 a week, which allows retailers to budget their annual costs weekly with no fear of hidden extra charges."
According to Russell, the company operates an industry-unique shift pattern with its engineers to ensure good weekend coverage. "This is usually a busy time for our customers and they want a more reactive response to get the machine up and running during the peak revenue earning period," he explains. "We now operate a four day on/four day off pattern so that we have the same level of coverage seven days a week."
CHOOSING A CONTRACT
Things to consider when evaluating the value of a service contract include:
- The service provider’s expertise and access to spares required to support the equipment on site
- Hours of cover - do you need 24/7 or maybe only 5-days-a-week cover for no critical faults?
- Geographical coverage
- Service agreements that encourage working together to maximise the operator’s forecourt and shop offer
- Legislative conformity - the health, safety and environmental conformity records of the supplier.
(Source: Gilbarco Veeder-Root)