So here we are in December, another year nearly gone. It would be nice to claim that I’ve been too busy to properly prepare an end of year report but, sadly, that hasn’t been the case. In truth, October and November just haven’t seen the usual increase in activity from our punters. I know it’s not due to the competition as that hasn’t changed. And I’m pretty sure it’s not that my operation has worsened.
Of course the weather hasn’t helped - whatever happened to frost, ice and snow? If this trend continues it won’t only be ’down under’ that will be serving the turkey from a barbie Not only have we lost out on the car wash, bags of coal, anti-freeze, de-icer and screen wash, but I think that the lack of an obvious change of season has left my customers still thinking they are drifting along in September. Hopefully there will be a sudden realisation that Christmas is only a few weeks away, but you know that you can never really catch up lost trade. The only comforting thought is that at least I’m not a clothing retailer stuffed to the gunnels with winter coats and thick woolly jumpers.
In many ways this has been a momentous year. The news that BP was trying to sell Coryton underlined just how much our industry has changed. For as long as I can remember, the basic rules have been that the oil companies were always striving to move product just to keep the refineries operating at an efficient percentage of output. That was the raison d’etre behind company-owned sites and was the driving force behind the early days of courting the newly-emerging supermarket chains that wanted to sell fuel. And the downside was nobody wanted your refinery because there was too much capacity and you couldn’t afford to close it because of the clean-up costs.
How things have changed (although in truth there hasn’t been a mad stampede to snap up BP’s offering). The global economy has reached this sceptred isle with a vengeance. When the big boys have done their analysis they’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not a lot of reason to stick with the UK. A mature market with wafer thin margins and intense competition doesn’t have a lot going for it. Add in the decline in North Sea supplies, and sprinkle with the fact that the US now has to import refined product, and you get the perfect recipe for either going elsewhere or deciding it’s more profitable to ship your refined product Stateside than bother with those buggers in Blighty.
So to a large extent we are no longer needed. Of course the diminishing band of reps employed to increase dealer business will still knock on your door if you’ve got a decent site - they’ve got their targets to meet and a big volume site helps to keep up their throughputs - but the days of oil company largesse are well and truly confined to the history books. And it probably won’t be too long before oil companies as we know them will disappear, replaced with a wholesale operation only a little more sophisticated than the current suppliers to the spot market.
So is it all doom and gloom? Not really. As an industry we may not be making great strides forward but at least an efficient operation can still earn a reasonable return, and there’s always scope at the micro-level to pinch a bit of extra business from somebody else. I recently read about a convenience retailer who had a Co-op, a Spar, a Lidl, a Costcutter, a Somerfield, a Sainsbury, a Tesco and an Asda all within 1.5 miles of his store and yet he was happily turning over £45,000 a week from 2,500sq ft. And then there’s always the possibility of more diversification.
On the subject of which I recently visited a friend who was stocking a range of paperbacks. He was advertising a special offer of a third off all titles. So I bought "The Lion, The Witch...." Season’s greetings to you all.