It was a long time coming, but ExxonMobil’s global ‘On the Run’ shop format finally made it to the UK at the end of last year, with the opening of the first of several trial sites.

There are currently four in operation: Calcutt near Swindon, Berkshire; Robin Hood North on the A3 near Kingston, Surrey; and Baynard’s Green and Ermont Way in Oxfordshire. By the end of the year there should be around 10 altogether, and if the trials prove a success – and with it the backing of the ExxonMobil shareholders – the network of On the Runs will extend to 100-plus sites within the next four to five years.

Gordon Munro, retail marketing manager of Esso Petroleum UK, is confident of the success of On the Run: “It’s a global design, so we already have knowledge of the operation,” he says. “The concept has already made its mark in North and South America, Asia Pacific and parts of Europe, including Ireland.”

On the Run is specifically targeted to meet the needs of busy, working drivers needing quality refreshment quickly. They are mostly male, mostly travelling for work and one in four buy the food service, with 75 per cent of these buying a quality coffee.

It offers a range of traditional top-up and impulse goods, as well as a coffee shop/café featuring well-known UK brands such as Delice de France and Costa Coffee. The store is bright and spacious – with all the modern conveniences one would expect in a newly built £1m development – providing an attractive environment should motorists wish to take a break from the car.

The forecourt is also spacious, with plenty of room for parking. All pumps dispense all grades, and are prepared for pay-at-pump refuelling when that becomes available with the arrival of chip and pin next year. The car washing facilities are actively promoted at the entrance to the store where customers are greeted with reassuring samples of the gentle brush-wash material. The canopy and shop are detached, to reinforce the standalone identity of On the Run.

Site demographics mean On the Runs will appear in areas dominated by drive-on trade, with limited residential and commercial walk on.

“Generally speaking, we’re not looking to put On the Run sites where you’d see lots of rooftops and chimneys,” says Munro. “We want Tesco alliance stores in those residential places to target the customer on foot. On the Run is a destination for people on the move. It’s a stop-off point for people, somewhere more comfortable than a motorway café, giving a fast, fresh and friendly service.”

The trialling of the On the Run format follows the company’s extensive strategic review of the UK marketplace, which showed that price is only part of the equation as far as Esso customers are concerned.

Munro says the eight-year-old Pricewatch campaign – which ended last month – had established the company’s pump price competitiveness in its customers’ minds, but it was time to move on, because shoppers wanted more: “It’s not just the industry that’s changed, but the customer has changed. Our customers are increasingly mobile, time-pressured, and more discerning. The buzz word is cash rich, time-poor. Our assessment is they are looking for a spacious facility, with a fast service and modern facilities and high-quality products. Another element is today’s grazing lifestyle – people want snacks and a home-meal replacement to take away with them at night.”

On the Run is not just about a new store format, it also sees the launch of a new site operating model called CORS – Company Operated Retailer Stores – and the setting up of a wholly owned subsidiary called ROC UK – Retail Operating Company – based in Manchester, which employs all the staff for on the On the Run sites. If this bring back memories of Dart, Munro says: “Dart was a wholly owned subsidiary, but that’s where the similarities end. Dart didn’t have company-managed sites, it had licensees and agents.

“ROC is a global model so it’s all been tested. It’s about employees, and it’s about customer focus. We have taken all the administrative and back-office tasks away from what used to be the role of store manager.

“Before in the old world, retailers spent a lot of time on accounting, order pricing and so on. In the new world you free up their time to allow them to be out and focused on the customer. This is all about grass roots cultural change. A lot of the stuff that used to be done in the back office is now being centralised through the Manchester office. This is about common technology and common business processes. We also have a system that allows all of our wet stock control to be centralised using satellite links. Developed by ExxonMobil it was designed in the UK but is now global best practice.”

The On the Run trial will be evaluated in the middle of the year, but so far the results are very positive, according to Munro. There is even talk of the development of a smaller format, featuring the same key elements.