Since M&S entered the forecourt retail sector, the design and development of sites has become more important than ever. So says Mathew Fleming, head of programme management at retail fit-out specialist, Barlows. "Marks & Spencer’s decision to roll out its Simply Food offer at BP filling stations has raised the bar and meant fuel retailers are competing not just with each other but with the high street. Design and branding is more important than ever and many will be forced to rethink their offer if they want to retain customers and increase market share."

You only have to look at the state-of-the-art sites which are springing up around the country. Take Spar’s flagship Battlefield store near Shrewsbury. Spar is very proud of this site, and rightly so. Built around its food-to-go offering, the aisles in the store lead to a continental café-style area, which boasts hot food as well as a smoothie bar and self-serve coffee area. There are also tables and TV screens to encourage customers to relax and spend more time - and money - in store.

Meanwhile, there’s the striking new-build Harry Tuffin Supermarkets forecourt in Ludlow, which won the Best Main Route independent with nine sites or less as well as the overall category award for Best Main Route site at last year’s Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards. The building was designed with the environment in mind, with glass in the roof to allow lots of natural light into the shop.

There’s also the Touts’ Budgens forecourt in Nailsea, north Somerset, which re-opened with a new cutting-edge design last year. The stunning design, by architect Alec Cornish-Trestrail, includes a modern 4,000sq ft shop with plenty of windows, wide aisles with colourful displays, lots of fridges and freezers and a suspended ceiling.

The Esso forecourt has a five-island starting gate design with two 85,000-litre double-capacity, double-skin tanks, offering three grades of Esso fuel: unleaded, Super Plus and diesel.

Cornish-Trestrail, who runs ACT Design, has helped design many forecourts for leading retailers - including Forecourt Trader of the Year winners 2007, Robert and Hugh Fraser of the Fraser Group.

He says: "We’re very busy at the moment, in fact it’s non-stop. One of the most recent sites we’ve worked on is in Sherbourne for Symonds Forecourts. It’s a very attractive design, using a curved canopy which we also used at the Touts’ site. This type of canopy is something the planners seem quite keen on at the moment - they always like something new!

"However, the biggest pain now are the new planning regulations which came into place in April. They’re asking for more and more information up front, like environmental reports - these can cost about £4,000 - acoustics reports, arboricultural reports (these check that no trees will be damaged in the new construction), traffic assessments etc. I think my clients can expect to be looking at £10,000 each or it could be up to £15,000 - and that’s just to get the validity. In the past things like this were a condition of planning, but now they have to be paid up front.

"The regulations also mean new designs need to comply with SBEM (Simplified Building Energy Model) energy efficiency calculations, and we’re looking at PIR (Passive Infrared Sensor) for lights in rooms that aren’t in constant use."

Cornish-Trestrail’s latest project is Ashley Garage near the village of Box in Wiltshire. The site, owned by independent retailer Paul Miller since 1990, has been extended and refurbished and is due to open its doors again on September 11.

Paul has spent £450,000 on the refurbishment, which involved knocking down and rebuilding the back and side walls to increase the shop size from 100sq m to 185sq m. The former Esso Snack & Shop is now going to be a Budgens store. Paul says customers shouldn’t be able to see too much difference from the approach to the site - the canopy, forecourt and shop front have to stay the same because the forecourt is located in a green belt and an area of "outstanding natural beauty".

He adds: "With Alec’s help we’ve completely transformed the shop. It used to be a basic shop for motorists but now we’re going to be a fully-fledged supermarket - albeit on a local scale. We won’t be competing on price but on premium products and our level of customer service. We’re really looking forward to the grand opening."

Over at BP, there are plans to introduce a new European forecourt site design to the UK later this year.

Ramsay MacDonald, BP asset manager UK retail, says the company has been working to make its site at Bedworth, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire, more like its standard European design.

He says: "This is the first time we’ve used this design in the UK. We’re trying to look at our operations in Europe - if we can standardise them all we should get efficiencies and economies of scale, which should make us more profitable. The problem is that each market is slightly different, particularly with shops, and we’ve always had a slightly different take in the UK to the rest of Europe. So we’re trying to find out what will work."

Bedworth is a trial site, and MacDonald says the customer savings the company is looking at are "reasonably compelling". The knock-down rebuild project is due to re-open this autumn.

MacDonald adds: "We’d identified the site for the trial because it was coming to the end of its natural life and was due to be replaced. Most of the programme this year has been based on M&S and this isn’t an M&S site so it was the perfect opportunity to try something different. We’re hoping the difference to customers will be minute. It’s all about the type of equipment and how it’s laid out in store - the subtle differences."

BP has also been running its Better Bathrooms programme, which aims for 5-star toilets on its sites.

MacDonald adds: "Overall, we have to look at providing really good facilities on site and still remain competitive. As forecourts become increasingly complex they become more space hungry. That’s always the challenge with forecourts, but it’s more so now than ever. Car parking is also an issue when it comes to designing a forecourt.

"When you look at our M&S sites there can be 25 people working on them, and if they all drive, that’s a lot of parking. And customers want parking too to allow them to go into the shop and browse."

He adds: "This isn’t the time for fancy, innovative designs for pumps and canopies. The important thing is that it’s functional, reliable equipment, and that the forecourt is spacious and well-lit. People also want to know they can park and exit the site safely. You can’t compromise on any of this."

MacDonald says people are "thinking about sustainability all the time", adding that whereas a few years ago the policy was to knock down and rebuild, now it’s to re-use as much of the existing kit as possible.

He says: "The key thing we’re trying to look at is how to minimise energy consumption. With lights we’re looking at ways to make it easier for members of staff to turn off the electricity when it’s not in use. Sustainability is very high on our list of priorities."

According to MacDonald, BP’s site in Andover has solar tubes in the ceiling which act like skylights but actually reflect the light into a beam of light. He says: "It’s natural daylight but it looks like an electric light - we’ve used the tubes in the sales area and at the back. It’s wired to the mains board so if the summer is good enough, the electricity usage goes down. And another thing is that the staff really like working with natural light. We’re now looking at putting the tubes into other sites."

MacDonald adds: "The thing is, you can put all these things in place but you have to look after them, so this year we’ve got lots of maintenance going on like cleaning canopies and replacing bulbs to get the best performance out of our sites."

Barlows’ Fleming agrees that sustainable construction is a major factor right now - in terms of both being ’greener’ and in cutting costs. He says: "We’re seeing increased interest in sustainable development from fuel retailers, which reflects raised awareness of environmental issues throughout the retail sector as a whole." Barlows, which teamed up with Total on the Bonjour store concept, says it is in the preliminary stages of discussions with a major fuel retailer with a view to analysing its current design specification and looking at the alternatives - in terms of environmental benefits and cost.

Fleming adds: "Sustainable fit-outs do often require more initial investment but over the longer term offer better value due to reduced energy usage, lower maintenance costs and lower disposal costs at the end of the products’ life cycle."

Fleming says that in the past retailers have tended to take a short-term view of financial returns because of the way their budgets were organised. But now many seem to be taking a genuine interest in minimising their impact on the environment and enjoying the benefit of cutting running costs.

He adds: "Sustainable construction starts right at the design stage, where the aim is to plan for maximum efficiency and ’design out’ products or features that are environmentally undesirable. Sustainable construction also considers the organisation of the work - to avoid unnecessary fuel consumption in terms of travel and transport - and the equipment that goes into the building. This area offers the greatest potential for improvement as the use of energy-efficient appliances and building management systems can make a huge difference over the lifetime of a building.

"There has been a lot of talk about ’greenwash’, so retailers who are investing in sustainable construction need to have some way to assess the merits of a scheme. We have worked with independent consultants to rate materials and projects and are using an ’ecopoints’ system."


=== Beswick Design and Wild Bean café ===

Beswick Design has been in the design business for almost a decade, and director Chris Hayward says companies like BP and Esso have approached them for ideas in response to marketing and sales challenges. The Leicestershire-based company has recently been working with BP to increase the visibility and footfall in its Wild Bean Cafés and, according to Hayward, the focus has been on giving Wild Bean differentiation from the other offers and improving accessibility.

He says: "As foodservice becomes a major focus within petrol retailing, Beswick Design has focused on clarifying the key hooks, and communicating this in a simple, clear way while taking into consideration the entire environment and the customer journey from arrival to exit. Research shows the greatest period of a customer’s visit to a forecourt is still spent at the pump and the average time spent on the forecourt is under five minutes. This is an accepted waiting period and an opportunity. But communications need to be targeted and clear as there is already a cacophony of visual noise from competing products and services."

He adds that Beswick Design has worked with BP to help Wild Bean make an impression from the pumps. This includes changing the inside layout and the communications to reflect the flow and thoroughfare of the fast lane. Beswick has also been working with a market-leading food company that supplies Wild Bean as these partnerships can maximise the benefits for all parties. It has also been improving presence and awareness of the traditional convenience and travel-related products.

Hayward says: "It’s been excellent working with BP, as it is an incredibly astute business and shares our emphasis on the fundamental importance of customer insight."


=== Making the most of your site ===

* Value and use customer insight - research, surveys, focus groups - as appropriate. This doesn’t have to be costly but it will ensure all elements of the environment are working together to meet real requirements and improving satisfaction and spend.

* Look at both the ’day part’ and the ’need state’ relevant to your different customers - effectively the requirements and preferences at different times of the day, and the different needs of the trucker, the travelling salesman, the mum, etc.

* Consider the customer journey and time frames and use this information to inform layout and communications, especially in the fast lane.

* Be informed by the expertise gained from other retail sectors - the catering industry, the high street and supermarkets can all give crucial lessons.

* Building partnerships with major sub-brands can be to everyone’s advantage.

* Organise your merchandising in a considered and co-ordinated way, using space planning to ensure the best advantage - however big or small. Convenience stores should be as convenient to use as possible. Simply stacking in as much as possible will not maximise sales.

* We use a ’review, research, create, deliver’ cycle to keep at the top of the game.

Source: Chris Hayward, managing director, Beswick Design