I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I’m a bit of a footie fan. Now I’m not talking here as a ’World Cup convert.’ I’m talking instead as a dyed-in-the wool terrace fan, the sort that actually didn’t mind standing on an open terrace at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon with the rain pouring down his neck, provided his team was stuffing their local rivals.
OF COURSE, THAT WAY OF LIFE has gone now, swept away by Hillsborough and Sky. One phenomena that does still exist is, however, the reaction I sometimes get when I hear a report from an ’expert’ on a match I’ve just been to. I call it my Victor Meldrew moment - "I don’t believe it - was that guy at the same game as me? How can he possibly think we were lucky to win, we played them off the park. And as for saying Jones had a poor game, didn’t he see what he did to that full back in the first half, and what about the pass he laid on for Smith to score the winner?"
I HAD A COUPLE OF VICTOR MELDREW MOMENTS last month when I read the interview in Forecourt Trader with Marc Dagniaux, Total Oil’s retail director. It was the bit when he said "In the same way, if we have good quality sites we are not obliged to maintain the lower price to ensure customers come on to our forecourts. We are building ourselves an insurance against pricing."
WELL EXCUSE ME for interrupting, but either all of the 15 or so Total sites near me must be considered by Total as being crap or Monsieur Dagniaux doesn’t know his Megane-feature from his elbow. In my area a casual glance at Catalist will show that Total are almost as bad as Shell at ripping margin to shreds. Just today I have passed a Total site that’s a penny a litre below the local Tesco.
NOW I WILL ADMIT THAT NONE of the sites in my area look as attractive as the Bonjour site featured in the article. They’re all bog-standard forecourts with reasonable sized shops and car washes. And I will definitely give credit to Total for being one of the most progressive oilers with regard to car washes and their operation. But I certainly wouldn’t say that they were crap sites - and neither would many of the guys who a few years ago once operated a lot of them as Total licensees.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO MY SECOND Victor Meldrew moment - Monsier Dagniaux’s quote that "some dealers run very good sites and we believe they could manage our sites very well". Now this is hardly a road-to-Damascus-type revelation. The old joke used to be: How do you get a mid-volume average site? Take a well-run large volume site off a licensee and give it back to direct operations. And nothing has changed in the past six years to alter the basic veracity of the answer. Of course local dealers know their areas better, of course local dealers are more involved with their communities.
THAT’S WHY THE OLD LICENSEE MODEL worked so well. What has changed in the past few years is that the petrol margin has shrunk to such minimalist proportions that the shop and wash operation are the keys to making any return. Chuck in the ever-rising minimum wage and the prospect of an extra eight days paid holiday a year and I can understand why Total can’t make some of their sites pay.
THE CLEVER PART OF ITS (and Shell’s) strategy is finding good operators who will work on a com-op basis, and it has been surprising to find the quality of dealers who both companies now have fighting to be awarded groups of sites.
THE ONLY CONCEIVABLE reason for participating in this ’partnership’ that I can see is the prospect that once installed the dealers will be first in line to be able to buy the site when eventually it is sold (and these sites will one day be sold). I hope they aren’t putting too much faith in this - divorce proceedings with Total don’t tend to bring you much alimony.