In 2006 Justin Entwistle, managing director of Hambleton Service Station near Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire joined Spar. Then he had a 1,000sq ft unbranded store turning over between £8,000 and £10,000 a week. Today he has a 2,600sq ft Spar store doing £23,000-£24,000 a week and he is confident of getting the turnover up to £30,000. Justin describes his store as modern; its state-of-the-art features include a walk-in chilled room for alcohol where the beers and wines are kept at below 10°C.
Needless to say he’s really glad he joined Spar. He says the level of support he gets from the symbol group - and wholesaler James Hall - is "quite refreshing".
"I chose Spar because they gave us the complete package. They were the most interested in our business and were keen to push us forward. And they are continuing to push us forward as we are currently looking at opening a second store."
Spar has 545 forecourts within its 2,600-store estate. "We are consistently growing our number of forecourts because there are a lot of independent forecourt retailers out there looking to grow their business," explains Peter Creak, Spar’s forecourt specialist.
Like Justin, Creak talks about the ’complete package’ that the group offers. "We take a business on its merit; we do a site survey and recommend what needs to be done and we show the retailer the costings."
Creak says the biggest issue for stores joining is usually lack of refrigeration. He adds: "We help take a forecourt store from a snack & shop to a full-blown convenience store."
The group is well known for its promotional activity which runs on a three-weekly cycle and also for its Spar own brand which is segmented into value, healthy and premium offers.
Creak reckons the things Spar offers retailers are trust and value for money. "All the symbol groups are fighting for the same business and each one of us has its strengths," he says.
Spar is the biggest symbol group operator in the UK but there are plenty of others to choose from. Some retailers choose one and stick with it but others chop and change over the years as their needs change.
The things symbol groups can give the independent operator are help and advice so even though they are a lone trader they are not trading alone. Retailers are usually allocated a business development manager whose job, as the title suggests, is to help retailers take their business forward. Other trading benefits include more competitive prices, promotions and marketing support as well as shopfitting services.
== Bestway ==
Bala Krishan, originally from Ski Lanka, has been in business in Britain for almost 30 years. He has recently taken on two forecourts in Kent - a Texaco in Aylesford and a Murco at Langley, both near Maidstone.
Both have shops that trade under the Best-One banner.
Bala says he has been a member of most of the symbol groups but he reckons Best-One is by far the best: "The most important points in its favour are that there are no service charges, no annual fees and no administration fees. The group provides great help to me with merchandising and with suppliers’ lists. I am now taking two deliveries a week from them and, most important of all, I have seen my business increase by 25-30%."
He says that in addition to the help with merchandising, he particularly welcomes the active support from the Best-One regional manager who visits him once or twice a week. "It’s good to know there is always someone to seek advice from if I need it."
Bala is keen to develop his business and this month he is opening a post office at his Aylesford forecourt shop, which is good news for his customers and also an excellent example of a successful business that is bucking the current trend where post offices are closing across the country.
James Hall, Bala’s Best-One business development manager, comments: "We are keen to support retailers in the petrol forecourt side of the business with merchandising advice and good levels of service and operations."
== Nisa-Today’s ==
Paul Delves, managing director of Montgomeryshire-based Tuffins, has been using Nisa since 1982.
He says they are the cheapest buying group by far when it comes to net prices. He also likes the fact that Tuffins can still have its own name above the door. "We are not tied to using the Nisa name however we choose to have a Nisa-Today’s and Tuffins co-branded fascia," he says.
Paul has nothing but praise for the group: "They have the best central distribution in the independent sector by a country mile and are able to supply all our stores from our smallest (1,500sq ft) to our largest, (60,000sq ft). They have a massive chilled and produce range, a good frozen range and more than enough ambient lines for us. We get six deliveries a week of fresh and chilled and between one and three of ambient."
Paul says he’s been approached by other groups but he’s more than happy with Nisa.
Nisa-Today’s group symbol director, John Heagney says: "We are specialists in high turnover forecourt stores that offer a full grocery range. In particular we focus on a strong fresh food and food to go offer."
He reckons being a Nisa-Today’s branded retailer has a host of benefits: "We have a strong corporate, nationally-recognised identity, superb store layout and merchandising formats. Plus there is our promotional package, including Nisa-Today’s FM satellite in-store radio. In addition, a member of our team will agree with the retailer a plan of action for their store, which may include a full refit."
Of course there are pros and cons to joining a symbol group but in these fiercely competitive trading times these groups are helping a lot of independents keep their heads above water.
=== Symbol sales ===
? There are 13,760 symbol group retailers in the UK
? The symbol group sector is worth £8.9bn
? Symbol groups have a 34% share of the UK convenience sector and a 6.9% share of the total UK grocery market
? Spar is the largest player followed by Londis, Best In/Best One and Costcutter
=== connections ===
Of course there are other brand alliances across the forecourt sector that work well. BP has been very successful with M&S Simply Food and with its BP Connect with Wild Bean Café concept. While M&S Simply Food is not yet available as a franchise, BP Connect with Wild Bean Café is.
The oil giant says it is looking for "high calibre franchisees, people with a passion and dedication for good quality and service, whose skill can be combined with BP’s experience of convenience store retailing".
Meanwhile Subway continues to add forecourts to its network.
Spar wholesaler the Henderson Group has the food to go chain operating on its forecourts as does Euro Garages. Zuber Issa, managing director of Euro Garages, says there is good synergy between the forecourt operators and the Subway franchisees but he adds: "Most importantly our customers love the freshly-made subs so traffic is driven to our forecourts."