As Spar announces its intention to boost its forecourt estate to 600 stores over the next two years, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of its wholesalers, Capper and Co, is trying to achieve that single-handedly.
Bryan Walters, who has been sales director of the South Wales-based company since last November, says the forecourt sector is the fastest-growing area of the business. "Our numbers have grown from 22 sites three years ago to 84 - or another way of looking at it is that we doubled our numbers, from 42 to 84 in two years. We’re going to get to 110 this financial year, comfortably, which means forecourts will constitute one third of our business.
"What that has meant to us is that we have to change the way we do business. The needs of the fastest-growing area of our business has to be supplied. Three years ago our forecourts were oily rags with Spar fascias on them. What you have now is quality convenience stores with a great range, lots of fresh food participation, a lot of offers and a lot of theatre about the stores."
In response to its growing forecourt clientele, Capper has recruited Mark Dempsey as a specialist to look at the Spar offer and the opportunities within the forecourt sector.
"So as well as having a standard Spar sales contact, forecourts operators will have somebody specifically looking at their market, suggesting opportunities and making sure that we, as a company, can support their needs," explains Walters. "At the moment we don’t deal with car care for example, or anything to do with the forecourt other than our normal business. With our forecourt numbers rising as they are, we should look at the opportunities to give them support in other areas."
Walters has some interesting figures about forecourts in Capper’s territory which extends from Wales along the M4 corridor into the South East.
"Average trading hours on the company’s standalone estate, what we would call our typical convenience store, are 99; but in our forecourt estate they’re 135. Average store sizes were 1,096sq ft in standalones, but 1,129sq ft in forecourts.
"As we stand now we have £41m of wholesale sales going to our forecourt stores, with Malthurst and the Lakeside group accounting for 50% of the business."
Walters attributes the success of the forecourt/Spar business to the uniqueness of the partnership: "Where I think we score against the other symbols is that we invest a lot of time and effort into understanding what our retailers actually need. I think Spar goes that extra mile in terms of understanding where the store is located, who the shopper is, and how the offer should be changed throughout the day.
"Having the right support network for the operators is essential. They’re running their business and they can’t do it single-handedly. So therefore we have to provide the right structure and infrastructure to come up with ideas on how to help them - forcing them to come out of their business and work on it rather than in it."
Walters believes the challenge for any independent retailer today is the march of the multiples and the fact that the industry needs professionalism.
"It needs standards, and to be able to match the multiples in the quality of offer, but also then to beat the multiples in terms of the uniqueness of the offer. I think we’re well placed in Spar to exploit those opportunities for our retailers."
Tim Wooldrige of Powell Garages has been with Spar for two years. He has four sites, including the Fforest Ffach, Swansea, site which he developed two years ago, spending £100,000 extending his shop to 1800sq ft. He replaced Mace with Spar simply because his favourite rep - Karen Parry - made the same move. She has just moved to Texaco - but that’s alright since Tim has a Texaco forecourt.
Tim is exceptional in forecourt retailing for running a successful Southern Fried Chicken business. He also has a bakery and salad bar to complement a very strong food-to-go offer. Curry is also about to be added to the menu. "Our main business is fried chicken, which had already been on the site for six years when I came here," says Tim. "So thankfully it is very well established. We serve food here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It never shuts. Food is a huge part of our business - it represents 30% of our shop turnover. This month we should do £40k. The shop overall will do £125,000 (exc VAT).
"On a Saturday night between 10.30pm and 6.30am we can do £1,000-worth of chicken. We buy £6,000-worth of fresh chicken every month. It’s a lot of hard work, and requires tremendous discipline, but it’s very profitable.
"On a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night we have a bouncer on the door - it costs me £16 an hour to control some of the people who come in here - it’s a rough area. But a big proportion of our customers walk on - they don’t buy fuel. We’re a 3.5mlpa site and that has remained steady."
The site is on a trunk road near a large council estate, an industrial park and a big shopping complex - bringing quite a mix of people. The Spar brand has provided a great boost to the shop business, according to Tim, and is currently achieving double-digit year-on-year growth.
"The biggest benefit to us in moving to Spar is the brand," he says. "It’s very professional and certainly while Karen was here we had tremendous support - it’s all about personal relationships. Last Friday we didn’t get our order in, but we still got a huge delivery the following morning. That’s really good."
Mike Johnson, who runs Stylegrange with his sister Sarah, has two forecourts in Cardiff. One has a 2,000sq ft shop and turns over £45-£50,000 a week including car wash and lottery. He’s had the site for four years and has redeveloped it with new pumps, new jet washes and a shop extension. Fuel volume is 6.5mlpa.
"We’re currently changing the shop around again - extending the off licence and increasing the range in the shop. You have to keep the store up to standard.
"The package Spar is offering - the strength of the image and the support we get is excellent. Nothing is too much trouble - we get great help from the rep."