The current series of Database figures started with data from January 1996, although we had been regularly presenting statistics and accounting information in these pages for many years prior to that. Twelve years is a long time in any industry, let alone one that changes as frequently as petrol retailing, and we are reaching a point where this particular series is coming to a natural close.

The basic reason is one of technology. Throughout most of our history EKW has processed accounting data and maintained the Database on its own proprietory computer systems.

However, technology doesn’t stand still and every time something as basic as the operating system changes, customers with the new versions want to be able to run their existing software on it. For any IT developers it is a constant battle to keep their own software compatible with every change in the market. It’s not even a battle that you can avoid - customers have to change PC systems now and again simply because the equipment gets damaged or just worn out. And when they go out and replace a two- or three-year-old PC it’s almost certain that the version of Mr Gates’ product loaded onto it will not be the same as the one they’ve previously used. So that means replacing a lot of software with newer versions.

For an organisation like ourselves, that constant IT battle has proven to be a rather expensive distraction from our main purpose of providing accounting and business services. So, over the past 12 months we have slowly been migrating firstly our internal processing, and now our client systems, on to externally-developed accounting software systems. These include some names that are well-known standard choices in the accounting profession, such as Sage, and some that are less well known but more specific for the retail environment, such as CounterBooks. Within the next few months we will have switched off our own legacy systems and transferred all of our processing on to these alternatives. When this migration is completed, we will be able to transfer our accounting data into a new central database, however it does mean that for a while, we will not be collating or publishing any data.

So, knowing that the present series is drawing to a close, we’ve taken a quick delve back into the archives to see how some of the statistics look today in comparison with the early days of the series.

We’ve started by comparing the latest figures (from February this year) with those from February 1999. First the sales figures themselves, and in just nine years our average monthly shop sales have nearly doubled from £31,000 to £61,000 a month. That’s quite astonishing really, as 1999 doesn’t seem all that long ago, and many observers would probably agree that forecourt shop formats have evolved fairly gradually during the intervening period, following the really dramatic developments of the late 80s and early 90s. Drill down a bit further into the data and the picture is one of subtle changes, however one important category immediately stands out - tobacco.

Despite a decade of action against smoking, tobacco remains the biggest single sales category in the forecourt shop. Today it still represents almost 33% of total shop sales - down from just over 36% in 1999.

But a noticeable change in the shop sales mix since 1999 is the way that confectionery sales have declined in importance - from 10% of shop sales to less than 8%. Meanwhile soft drinks sales have grown from being worth 6% to nearly 11%.

And then we come to alcohol. Although we didn’t have a definitive category for booze in 1999 (there simply weren’t more than a small handful of forecourts selling it at that time), we do have a pretty good idea of where it was included - within the general ’Other Sales/Services’ group. That group has included numerous passing fads over the years but today it is pretty much dominated by alcohol sales. And so that ’Other Sales’ group has gone from being worth just below 3% of all sales in 1999 to 9% in 2008.

So when the health lobby comes up with its next suggestions for tobacco or alcohol, retailers would do well to remember that however much development their shops have undergone over the years, they still rely on the twin ’evils’ of smoking and drinking for a considerable part of their income. Cheers!