When it comes to forecourts, first impressions are everything. If a motorist approaches your site and it looks shabby, they’re likely to drive on to the next one. So forecourt maintenance should be top of the list for retailers in today’s highly competitive market.

That’s according to Steve Martin, managing director of Xmo Strata, who explains: "Retailers need to look at their sites with fresh eyes and see what maintenance issues there really are.

"If you see a site that’s shabby or not well lit, you’re far less likely to stop there to fill up - and so also less likely to use the shop. Psychologically it’s a less appealing option for the motorist, especially for female drivers. If you look at the more astute fuel retailers, you see that they have contracts in place with key performance data and are always challenging the company to deliver more and more."

According to Him’s Convenience Tracking Programme (CTP) 2008, when customers were asked what the three most important things were that a forecourt c-store must deliver, 8% said shop cleanliness/tidiness. This made store cleanliness and maintenance more important than shop promotions (these scored 7%).

And when shoppers were asked to rate the outlet’s appearance, the average score was 8.1 out of 10, leaving room for improvement.

Xmo Strata maintains 1,500 sites around the UK, including looking after forecourt signage, performing pump re-sprays and basic cleaning. Martin says keeping a site tidy and in good general repair is the most important of the three. He recommends sites have an annual valet, including jet wash, cleaning under the canopy and changing the fluorescent tubes in signs. Retailers should also get the control gear and ballasts in the flourescent tubes serviced or replaced once every two years.

Xmo Strata recently launched its sign refurbishment system Vicom HQ, which brings signware and building cladding back to its original colour and prevents fading without the expense of new signs. Martin says it costs about 20-25% of the cost of replacement to treat signage with Viacom HQ, which is suitable for application on materials such as aluminium and acrylic. The product also provides UV protection and has a 10-year guarantee, while regular sign treatment apparently shows colour variants in less than five years. Moto is the first major company in the UK to use the product, with 19 sites treated, including price signs and facility signs for its coffee and store offers. Vicom HQ was launched in the UK last summer and Xmo Strata has the exclusive distribution rights. It is also in Europe - for example, BP has used it in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Regarding maintenance contracts, Martin says: "We would normally recommend retailers get decent maintenance contracts. There are two main types - reactive and planned. With reactive contracts, there is no outlay initially and you only spend what you have to. But this can work out less cost-effective in the long run. With planned maintenance contracts you can get several sites seen in one day, reducing transport costs. In the long term, it’s more cost effective - even if you only have one or two sites."

== Pumps ==

With soaring fuel prices, it’s crucial to keep pumps well maintained. Frank Hare, general secretary of the Petroleum Equipment Installers and Maintenance Federation (PEIMF), says: "At the moment, top of the tree in forecourt maintenance is attention to pump meters. Pumps are given a certain tolerance to be over or under performing, but with prices so high, it is vital retailers pay attention to pump meter accuracy. Whereas in the past it’s been normal to do this once a year, it’s now worth getting pump meters checked more regularly, maybe even on a monthly basis for some sites."

Hare recommends speaking to your existing pump maintenance company to organise this and have pumps checked for wear and tear and any drifting. Or shop around. "Get some contractors to visit and tell you what they can offer," he says. "They’re doing deals now far more frequently than they used to because they want retailers’ business. Just communicate with them about your changing situation. Not since the 70s - when there were so many old pumps around - has it been so important to have a good maintenance contract in place. You can’t afford to lose a drop of fuel."

Regarding contracts, Hare says it’s worth spending what you can afford. He explains: "Don’t wait until it breaks down. If you have a pump out of order for eight hours, that’s eight hours lost business. Privately-owned sites are less likely to have service contracts but an astute manager or owner looks at the changes going on and at their service contract more regularly. Most supermarket and motorway sites have four-hour call-outs. This is too expensive for most retailers, but speak to the contractors - do a deal. Retailers are very vulnerable right now."

Lee Papper, director of EPOS Engineers, says effective forecourt maintenance is all about the skill and experience of the engineer and the responsiveness of the maintenance contractor. He says: "Our team is fully trained to support all major types of pump including the latest pay-at-pump and Stage II vapour recovery solutions, and our engineers are among the most experienced in the business. In this volatile market retailers need to know they can rely on their maintenance provider."

Maintenance is becoming more automated, especially in the kiosk areas. But there is also automated off-site monitoring available for handling fuel. These services can check for leaks, losses etc, and give peace of mind. According to Hare: "It takes some of the worry away, although of course it’s more expensive." One company offering hi-tech inventory management is US software and services firm FuelQuest, which recently entered the UK market via its European headquarters in Manchester. Its software solution focuses on the downstream fuel supply chain. Tim Napper, FuelQuest’s European director, says retailers are finding increasing levels of their capital tied up in fuel inventory as prices have consistently risen, and the challenge lies in managing the fuel supply chain to avoid stock-outs and maintain efficient deliveries while keeping pump prices low.

He adds: "The opportunity to establish greater control over your fuel operations lies in implementing a solution that provides the visibility, control and automation that equips the user to better manage his fuel supply chain activities. This means optimising stock held underground to both avoid stock-outs and minimise your working capital. Great control also leads to placing orders when it is the optimal time for the retailer to gain advantage of the best supply price and the best fit with the usage forecast, on every delivery. There is a recognised value in having all the parties involved in a company’s fuel supply chain collaborating through a single backbone system to drive the lowest cost operation from terminal to the point of use. The benefits add up - our users are experiencing a margin gain of up to 1ppl."

According to Napper, the key operational areas across the fuel operation to be addressed include:

? inventory management - reduce working capital, avoid stock-outs

? order management - at the optimal time and volume, every time.

? strategic sourcing - assessing the best supply option on every order

? delivery and invoice reconciliation - ensure you pay for what you received

? reporting and analysis - a real time view of what is happening.

He says: "Fuel management solutions are providing real, tangible bottom line benefit to companies through a marked reduction in stock-outs, accurate forecasting, optimal fuel sourcing, effective use of resources, and lowered inventory levels."

== Car wash ==

Dawn Frazer, marketing manager at WashTec (UK), recommends retailers do at least 15 minutes of maintenance on their car wash equipment every day.She says: "One of the greater threats to a site’s washing revenue is unregulated hand car washing. It’s all very well to bemoan the situation and say how unfair it is - and it is - but there are things every site owner can do.

"First take a really good look at your site. Is it inviting? Would you want to use it? How old is the equipment? Is it clean and well lit? Most importantly, is it always working when your customer wants to use it? If the answer is no, then perhaps you need to brush up on your daily maintenance. Every piece of equipment needs to be looked at daily."

CSC Forecourt Services specialises in cleaning forecourts. John Binnie, CSC managing director, says: "Our aim is to focus attention on image, which is crucial to any successful business. The first place to start is with a good site-cleaning schedule. We want to encourage the regular use of our cleaning services to help maintain that image.

"One of the most irritating scenarios we see is where a site has been re-imaged with expensive new signage but the canopy under-sheeting is left covered with cobwebs and dirt and the car wash is thick with grime."

CSC recommends an annual site-cleaning programme, including the main forecourt canopy and the stanchions and pumps beneath, all branded areas, surface, canopy roof gutters, lights and car wash bays.

According to the company, wash bays will nearly always benefit from a quarterly clean to prevent build-up of scale, wax and grime.

The surface of the forecourt should be cleaned at least every six months. Binnie adds: "The forecourt cleaning programme helps pinpoint unseen problems such as rotting roof gutters. If these are regularly cleaned the water can drain away via the correct route. But where water cannot drain away, moss and algae form and so do holes, and then repair work becomes necessary. If left for a long period, there is the likelihood of replacing sheets, and costs start to escalate."

He adds: "Retailers need a company with a professional approach to health and safety. Staff should be trained in forecourt safety practices; safety equipment and clothing should be used where appropriate; and equipment should be of the standard to be used on the forecourt - regularly maintained and serviced - and the company should be sufficiently insured."


=== Case studY: Winford Ford garage ===

The Winford Ford Garage near Bristol has been in Justin Taylor’s family for more than 40 years, and he prides himself on keeping it in top condition.

Justin has a member of staff spend about an hour and a half every day cleaning the forecourt area, including picking up litter, emptying the bins, and washing down the pumps and jet wash. There is also the grass to cut around the rural Shell site on the B3130, plus the shrubs to water and prune.

Justin says: "We like to keep the site in good condition - it’s the old adage of first impressions count. But there’s also a whole host of other reasons why we want to do it.

"For example, if we leave the place looking like a pigsty, then nobody else will look after it either, and there’ll be litter all over the place from customers who can’t be bothered to walk to the bins. In addition, we’ve got three strong brands here - we’re a Ford dealership too, and we’ve got a Spar shop as well as the Shell fuel, and from my way of looking at it, it’s part of the deal.

"If you sign up with quality business partners the place has to look right."

The canopy is usually cleaned once every 12-18 months by a local firm, and the pumps on the site - which sells about 3.5mlpa - are looked after via a maintenance contract with Gilbarco. This includes an annual maintenance check and emergency backup. The jet wash maintenance is included in the site’s deal with AIR-serv.

Justin also makes sure the shop, converted to Spar about three years ago, is kept well stocked and immaculately clean.

Adds Justin: "The people who don’t worry so much about their site maintenance are probably in less salubrious areas or want to keep their costs down. But to me that’s a false economy."


=== Maintaining your car wash ===

Jet Wash

* Check the hoses are not split or chafed. If customers haven’t put the brush or lance away properly, cars can run over them, causing them to split.

* Check there are no leaks in the brush or lance arms or around the heads, you don’t want your customer getting covered in chemicals and water.

* Check the brush head for debris - it can happen, so check the brush.

* Check the bay for debris, it’s nice for the customer and, in winter months, make sure it’s not an ice rink!


* Check that the hose isn’t blocked and that the waste bin has been emptied - like a household vacuum they won’t work if you don’t.


* Check the chemical levels in all of your equipment at the beginning of the day. Better still ask your chemical supplier about a top-up service.

* Check your brushes for debris - it doesn’t happen often but if a piece of debris gets trapped in the brushes it can cause damage to the following vehicle.

* Carefully clean the photocells, they guide the machine around your customer’s car and if they get dirty they can stop the machine working.

* Sweep your bay clean. Not only does it look nicer for the customer but tin foil on a sweet wrapper can interfere with the sensors on a car wash and stop it working.

* Check that your compressor has oil in it and - although this is obvious - that it’s also switched on.

* Check that nobody has inadvertently pressed the stop button.

* During winter months, after a cold night, your machine may not work as the safety mechanisms may have been activated. Don’t try to hurry them along, they are there to protect the machine, you and your customers. When the temperature has risen sufficiently it will start to work again.


* A full bay clean should be carried out regularly, every couple of months if needed - depending on how busy your site is. Nobody wants to use a dirty car wash - it would be like doing your dishes in dirty water.

* Make your site inviting for your customer and they will keep coming back and if your equipment is working every time they want to use it they won’t need to go anywhere else.

* Help the Car Wash Campaign Group to help you by joining them. The louder the voice, the more you will be heard.

Source: Dawn Frazer, WashTec