How do you rate your business?

Not a very happy new year for those of you receiving massive hikes in your rates. Doug Wardle, who runs Jack’s of Norton in Stoke-on-Trent, got an unwelcome pre-Christmas piece of post telling him that his rates were going up by 80%.

Furthermore, because he pays monthly by direct debit and the increase demanded ran from November 2, 2011 to March 31, 2012, there would be a shortfall on his already-paid instalments.

When Doug rang up to complain, the Valuation Officer (VO) said he had been re-rated according to a form he had filled out in 2010 which had showed increased shop sales and value of fuel.

"I pointed out that we’ve lost 50% of our volume over the past 12 months," he says, "and the VO asked what’s the national average?"

When Doug told him it was between 25-30%, he then wanted to know why Doug’s losses were so high. Doug had to spell out the very aggressive fuel pricing in the area (makes you wonder where this particular council officer lives as he appears to be so unfamiliar with the local trading patterns).

The competition is fierce in Stoke with four Sainsbury’s, two Tesco’s and three Morrison’s (which was offering 10ppl off at the time) all within striking distance. Possibly something to do with the peculiar geographical layout of the place. Stoke is two miles wide and 14 miles long, following the valley. Most places are squarish or rectangular. In Stoke it means that a string of supermarkets can snake along to cover the entire place.

There had also been new-build superstores within the past 12 months. And this latter point, I think, could prove important to Doug’s appeal for a reduction.

In Forecourt Trader’s sister paper Convenience Store I have been following the fortunes (or lack of, more like) of a retailer similarly pursuing a reduction in his rates.

I discovered that, if an appeal is not agreed, it can go to a tribunal. Another retailer who had taken this route told me that his defence had been that new competition in the form of supermarkets had hit his business and his appeal was upheld.

Doug had written and posted his appeal the day he spoke to me (and on the day that this was written). The outcome could be of great interest to many forecourt operators so we will obviously bring you the next instalment as soon as it’s available. Meanwhile, feedback from any other forecourt operators who can add to our appeal-process knowledge, would benefit us all.

Beware the tracker email

We all get a lot of rubbish on email don’t we? I just got one from Gaddafi’s widow. She needs a conduit to channel her untold wealth out of the country and it’s me! I managed to resist the temptation. I had a more interesting one recently, which went to considerable lengths to establish the author’s credentials in order to authoritatively point out to punters how to keep their petrol prices down.

It’s supposedly from someone who has worked for 31 years "at the Shell Pipeline where we deliver about 4 million litres in a 24-hour period. We have 34-storage tanks here with a total capacity of 16,800,000 litres".

The email includes the advice to only buy in the early morning when the ground temperature is still cold and the petrol more dense; only fill up when a tank is half full (scientific stuff to do with evaporation); and only pump on low mode as "all hoses at the pump have a vapour return. If you are pumping on the fast rate, some of the liquid that goes to your tank becomes vapour which is sucked up and back into the underground storage tank so you’re not getting your money’s worth".

There was a lot more in this vein. Then, at the bottom of the email, people were urged to send it on to 10 more people. By the author’s extravagant sums this would add up to 300 million people in no time.

There were clues throughout that this email originated in the States, despite its use of ’petrol’ and ’litre’ and ’£1s’, so I sent it to Jonathan James (on the off chance you don’t know who he is, he has several forecourts in Cambs and is current chair at ACS) to see what he made of it. It made some fair points, he says, although it included a lot of totally irrelevant facts such as storage capacities. But the giveaway, he adds, "is the reference to what we would call Stage 2 vapour recovery whereby the fuel vapour from the nozzle is sucked back into the tank. Very few sites have this in place".

We agreed that the advice, if taken, would possibly save the average motorist a teaspoon. So why bother with the email?

I believe it’s what is known as a ’tracker’ although this is hotly debated among cyberspace smartypants. We all get them threats of mayhem if we don’t pass on the message; promises of untold wealth (move over Mrs Gaddafi) if we do. Child with incurable disease collecting signatures? They’re all (maybe) trackers or maybe just latter-day chain letters.

Just in case you don’t know what a tracker is, or indeed, want to ’pass on’ this knowledge, this type of email supposedly has an attachment that tracks the emails of all the people you forward to.

The host sender gets a copy each time it gets forwarded and then has a handy list of active email addresses to use in spam emails or to sell to telemarketers.

I was interested in the petrol one because it went to a lot of trouble and really didn’t look spurious until you got to the 300 million at the end. That’s a lot of teaspoons or email addresses. Or maybe it’s just nonsense.