With due acknowledgement to Queen Liz, for most forecourt traders 2008 truly was an ’annus horribilus’ (please note that, in deference to some of my more demure readers, I spelt the word ’annus’ with double ’n’ when probably the single ’n’ version would more accurately reflect the views of the majority!).
Bearing in mind that we sell a commodity product and not a luxury, who could possibly have predicted that we would see our fuel sales plummet by such huge amounts in such a short space of time? Over the years I’ve seen falls of a few per cent year-on-year and, occasionally when special factors came into play, maybe even 10% - but 20%-plus is unbelievable. While the economists might trot out phrases about the elasticity of demand, this was more a case of the elastic snapping completely. A salutary reminder that, given a big enough shift in price, even a purchase previously considered ’essential’ can become ’discretionary’.
Then we’ve had the onslaught by the politically/medically correct brigade who specialise in sheep-like behaviour without ever seriously questioning the basic premise of their actions. Ban alcohol from forecourts - that’s a great idea! It’s only a great idea because they’re such an easy target! What is the perceived problem that is trying to be addressed? Presumably binge-drinking and the associated rise in unsocial and illegal activity in virtually every town centre throughout the country. Okay, I’m certainly not against that. But how many forecourts are located in town centres? And what proportion of total alcohol sales does our industry account for? And are we the ones who spend millions promoting the idea that you can only have a good time if you’re sloshed? And when did you last see a forecourt selling alcohol at reduced rates during a ’happy hour’ or offering big discounts to customers who happen to fit a certain profile?
And if the problem that was supposed to be addressed was really drink driving, why should forecourts selling alcohol present such a disproportionate risk? What’s that - because you can drive to a forecourt, buy your alcohol and then drive away with the alcohol actually sitting alongside you in the car? So in what proportion of drink-driving cases had the driver actually been drinking in the car at the time of his arrest? And which retailers in the country have made it easiest to park your car while buying your booze?
The truth is that Britain has always had a booze culture. Our glorious Empire was built on the back of an army and a navy that was either fighting the enemy or smashed out of its mind on booze. The difference is that it used to be mainly the male that went on the rampage. It appears that it has now become socially acceptable for the other half of the population to join in as well. And whereas once upon a time consumption was limited by affordability, alcohol is now so cheap that the kids are out of their minds before they’re out of they’re money.
Do you detect that I blame the hypers for our ills? Absolutely. They didn’t create the culture but they have been responsible for making booze so ridiculously cheap. Most kids can’t afford to get blathered at pubs or clubs, so they’re already half cut before they’ve left home for their evening out. It’s a strange world when a can of beer can cost less than a Mars bar. It’s also a sad one when, because they’ve been championed by the government as the consumers’ friend, the juggernaut hypers appear to be politically untouchable.
And not content with raising the purchasing age, we now have the PC mob banning the display of the most pernicious products known to man. Not knives, not pornography, not even booze - no it’s cigarettes!
So, 2008 an annus horribilus? Absolutely. Except that if you look at the EKW figures our bottom line seems to be holding up remarkably well. A resourceful lot us petrol retailers - I wish you all a prosperous 2009.