SO THE CHARCOAL ON THE BARBIE was almost out, the last beef burger disappeared long ago and, yes, we’d sunk quite a few bottles of wine between the six of us. We’d talked about the usual things – local gossip, sex, politics, football and weather – so we drifted into some of those twilight zones of conversation that you only visit when the sun is low and the blood alcohol level is high. You know what I mean – can you describe a spiral staircase without using your hands? If you were the last man on Earth after a nuclear explosion, who would you choose to be the last woman? What would you do if you won the lottery? Anyway, out of the blue one of my friends mentioned he’d been reading in the papers about the Co-op and them buying up convenience stores. What exactly, he asked, is a convenience store?

INTERESTING QUESTION, even when you’re sober. Well, it’s got to be conveniently located and open long hours – but then that applies to my local 24-hour hyper so that’s not enough of an answer. Well, it’s usually a lot smaller than a hyper – anything up to about 2,750 sq ft – but is that just because of the current Sunday trading hours legislation with its distinction between outlets of more or less than 3,000 sq ft? It’s got to stock news, booze, drinks, sweets, groceries, household, fresh, chilled and frozen – but, then again, so does a hyper so that’s still not it.

Eventually I arrived at an answer of sorts. It’s a shop that is open long hours, is convenient to visit, where it doesn’t take ages to make a purchase, sells all the product ranges previously mentioned and tends to specialise in smaller quantities of products and meals that are for almost immediate consumption. The drinks, including booze, will be chilled and some of the food will be hot. Just as importantly, the products will actually be available, subject to legislation, as near to 24/7 as possible. If it’s really doing the job right, the store will modify its offer to cater for the needs of the local community that makes up its customer base and, if it’s a real top flier, there will be a certain atmosphere too – a mixture of enthusiasm, friendliness and theatre.

SO WHY DOES THIS ALL MATTER ANYWAY? For a start take a look at your sales figures. If they’re anything like mine they’ve stopped growing! After years of seeing double-digit growth, and laughing at the likes of Sainsbury’s for only achieving a few percentage points here and there, suddenly a five per cent increase looks good. In the past we had the boost from news and mags, then the uplift from booze – but are we running out of additional product ranges we can introduce? With vanishing petrol margins and increased staffing costs, if we can’t increase shop sales and gross profits we’re in the brown stuff big time!

PERHAPS THE ANSWER IS that we’ve had it too easy up to now. To an extent we’ve been the only kids on the block. We haven’t had to be very good to be successful. Introduce new products, jack up the margins – this retailing lark isn’t really that difficult. Except that party time is over. If you haven’t got a purpose-built convenience store near you yet don’t be smug – it will be there soon. Unless, of course, we recognise how different most forecourt shops are from the 2003 perception of a convenience store – and decide to invest the time, effort and money to ‘build’ one ourselves. The best way to keep the competition out is to seize the high ground before they do. The good news is we’ve got a headstart. We’ve got the location, we’ve already got a good customer base and we have the opportunity, via symbol groups, to offer the range of product that would be difficult to source as a stand-alone independent. The bad news is that time is running out. Which is why, in my opinion, we’re beginning to see the ‘oilers’ exit from retailing. They’ve peered over the mountain top and realised they’ve neither the talent nor the desire to be part

of the future? Have you?