In the year to June 2008, UK consumers spent £37bn on gifts - up 10% on the previous 12 months. The figure comes from TNS Worldpanel data, which also reveals that the average spend on a gift is just under £29. Finding a gift of that value in a forecourt shop would be hard (unless you buy someone half a tank of petrol) however they do sell gift-worthy items such as flowers, chocolates and wine.
Flowers are very big business. According to the Flowers & Plants Association, the UK fresh cut flower and indoor plant market is worth £2.2bn, which equates to an average spend per person per year of £36 (£28 on flowers and £8 on plants).
Andrea Caldecourt, chief executive of the Association, says garage flowers have a poor image in the minds of consumers but the reputation is often unjustified: "Some forecourt outlets do an excellent job of retailing fresh flowers as they dedicate knowledge, staff, and floor space to the products. But others offer a token range of poorly-considered bouquets, which receive little attention in store. Guess which retailers enjoy healthy flower sales?"
She advises retailers to make sure their customers think positively about garage flowers. "Flowers need to be carefully displayed, as they are generally an impulse purchase so the attraction is all in their visual appeal. They also need careful handling - place them out of the wind, rain, hail, hot or cold draughts, excess heat or other conditions that could shorten their life or affect their quality. This is difficult in an exposed environment like a garage forecourt; so find a second area inside the store, close to the tills, for more stock.
"Ensure, at regular intervals each day, that all your flowers are still in the buckets, and the buckets still have water in them." She says customers hunting for the perfect bunch do not always put them back where they found them. "Five minutes spent putting all the stems back in water, and tidying up the rack, is a simple task that could pay dividends in increasing the visual appeal of the display and ensuring the quality of the product is maintained."
Many wholesalers offer pre-made bouquets and Caldecourt suggests that retailers look for those which either have a choice of flowers in one colour; or a choice of colours in one flower. "Try not to select bunches with both mixed colours and mixed flowers in them, as these are difficult to get right and they appeal to fewer consumers. Our surveys regularly find that neutral-toned bouquets are preferred to brighter clashing ones, particularly at lower price points.
Garishly-patterned, multi-coloured sleeves can put customers off too so look for plain sleeves or those with small, tasteful designs. You want to maximise the opportunities for each bunch to be sold - for love, friendship, sympathy, apology - and the plainer the sleeve, the more occasions that bunch is appropriate to."
She says the biggest technical hurdle to overcome is stock turnover. "Fresh flowers are not like baked beans or chocolate bars; they cannot be bought in advance and stored in a warehouse until needed. You need to anticipate how many you think will be sold within (at most) a four-day window, without selling out too fast and losing potential sales, but also without having stock dying, unsold, in your store."
One company that supplies forecourts with flowers is Blooms. They can be supplied on a sale or return basis where the retailer earns a small margin or on a firm sale basis where the retailer earns margins of close to 40%. Stock is delivered on a next day delivery basis via Blooms’ courier network. All merchandising is done by the retailers, but full care notes are provided with each delivery.
In addition, Blooms has launched a new internet service for consumers (www.bloomsltd.co.uk). Forecourt retailers can display leaflets for the service in their stores and then earn commission for any bouquets purchased via them.
Chocolate is of course another gift-worthy item that most forecourts carry. A key line to stock at Christmas time is Terry’s Chocolate Orange because, according to TNS Gift Trak data for the three months ending December 2007, it is Britain’s favourite stocking filler. Last Christmas 3.3million households bought the product. Sales were up 12.5%, with more than 10 million balls sold in the UK for the first time ever.
Books can be another good seller on forecourts and they make excellent gifts. Alan Pemberton, managing director at North West Books, says: "Our business with forecourt retailers has increased tremendously over the past 12 months and given the right amount of display space forecourts represent an excellent opportunity for our type of products."
He says good seasonal sales occur before Mother’s Day and in the run up to Christmas, while the holiday-reading category does well during the summer.
"We can tailor a display to suit different seasons but our ’buy one get one free’ paperback novel range with titles by top authors could feature throughout the year.
"We have also produced a stand that, in a little space, lends itself to displaying an excellent range of maps, Highway Codes, Driving Test theory books, paperback novels and children’s activity books."
Maps might not seem like a particularly gift-worthy product but the deluxe range of Philip’s City Street Atlases available from Octopus Publishing is different. Available for London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester, the maps come in trendy leather-look covers, in six colours. As well as the streets, the atlases give details of cinemas, theatres, shopping malls and car parks. Rrp is £8.99.
Finally, most gift-giving occasions require a card so it makes sense for forecourts to stock greetings cards too. Luckily there are companies which take the hassle out of stocking cards - doing the hard work for the retailer. One such company is Cardline Greetings where the cards are supplied on a consignment basis so you only pay for what you sell. The company also provides retailers with eye-catching merchandising displays, free on loan.
Terry Langley, business development manager at the company, says: "Our aim is to ensure we can offer retailers the best possible product range at the best possible price, while maintaining an unsurpassed customer service level. And we track sales by design information at store level. This allows us to review sales at category level or by actual designs, meaning that over time we can tweak the range to maximise sales.
The Cardline range encompasses over 500 designs for birthdays, occasions, relations and ages. All cards are cellophane wrapped but they are open so consumers can see exactly what’s inside.
Other products available include wrapping paper, bottle bags, Christmas roll wrap, gift bags and Purple Peach stickers.