The BP Connect programme continues to roll on with 170 sites now in operation, 10 under construction, and another 50 scheduled for development this year. And BP’s retail director Graham Sims is looking forward to the grand opening later this year of the two biggest Connect outlets in Europe.

“They are in Scotland on the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and will be the first two motorway service stations operated by an oil company,” announces Sims proudly. “We own them and will operate them as company owned, company operated sites. They will have 300sq m shops – the size of the biggest Tesco Express – and the forecourts will be enormous.

“We’ll have more seating, more Wild Bean expansion capability, proper tables and chairs – enough for a coach load and a couple of cars. Some will be lower level, some higher; and there will be an option for people to sit in and have china cups. It will have all the ‘learnings’ from the Connects we’ve built so far, plus a bit more.”

As we sit and enjoy the delights of a Wild Bean Café on a Connect site near BP’s headoffice in Milton Keynes, Sims makes regular reference to these ‘learnings’. He seems determined to make Connect a huge success, and to that end the format is constantly changing and evolving, in accordance with the results of regular customer research.

“That’s one thing we’ve learnt – to continually ask the customer,” stresses Sims. “We’ve also continued to recruit people externally, so as staff have left we’ve replaced them with retailers – people from Sainsbury or Tesco – not ‘oilers’. We’ve committed ourselves to Connect and have got a whole division now running Wild Bean. That’s the reason we won several awards last year, including Sandwich Retailer of the Year.” What has really impressed Sims is that when customers were being interviewed for a particular award, not one identified Wild Bean as being part of BP, they thought it was a franchise – “yet it’s 100% us!”.

“Also, as part of our customer research, we do brand tracking every month. Two big things happened at the end of last year. Firstly customers now recognise BP Ultimate as a better and more available product than Shell Optimax (it’s on 1,100 sites); and, if you ask customers to name a coffee shop that sells sandwiches, we came third after Costa. But most impressive to me was that when they were looking for a sandwich/snack shop, we overtook Pret A Manger for the first time in November, and then again in December. I think this is fantastic in terms of recognition of quality.”

Indeed one of the phrases Sims likes people to understand is ‘quality quickly’. “We think you cannot get a better quality sandwich, or baguette, handmade instore, with the guaranteed hygiene and quality of display, better, anywhere else,” he proudly states.

The latest results from customer research has led to Connect stores now being made up of five main areas: the fast lane; the Wild Bean Café; a central area for ‘occasions’; the chilled area; and grocery top-up.

“The fast last is the route between the door and the cash desk and we’ve re-configured the whole of that area so it’s much quicker for people. If they want to come in and just pay and go, they can still buy a lot of things, such as sandwiches or pastries because we’ve put them along that route. We’re also planning to add extra till points.

“Wild Bean is now in double-digit growth. We doubled our turnover last year. We believe the results that came out over Christmas show that Connect is growing its food offer faster than any other food offer in the country. Every single offer in the Wild Bean has been renewed in the past year, because customers have told us they get fed up with eating the same sandwiches. People want variety. We have also broadened the price range, so we have one sandwich that comes under the £2 bracket and some at £2.89. Every month we change about 10 products.

“We’ve also tried to identify two or three different occasions in the day to cater for – breakfast, lunch and evening. We don’t just sell black and white coffee, we now have mocha and extra flavour shots. We’ve recently changed the make of tea to the number one brand – Twinings. We make hot chocolate with expresso milk, and offer branded mint chocolate. We’re constantly raising the quality of the offer and trying new things.”

Speed and service is big on Sim’s agenda. His benchmark is ‘ten in five’: “I can guarantee that you can buy 10 products in five minutes here. You can’t do that in Tesco. One thing we can’t buy more of is time so our job on a transient convenience store location is fast convenience. What we’re trying to create in people’s mind is that we’re here for bread, milk, bacon for breakfast, sauce for the curry, chilled wine or whatever it might be.

“The transient locations mean people come in when they’re on holiday, taking the kids to school, going to work, whatever. But when they come in we want them to see time and again, things they will then become tempted to use as a habit. Because they have wandered around the store, they know what we have, so when the time comes, and they need something urgently, they know to come here.

“Also we don’t just want to target people who come in and buy food on the move to consume now. We also want them to buy for consumption later. For example, we have chilled beers, wine and champagne, which is convenient for people on their way to a party. On New Year’s Eve, for example we sold thousands of bottles of champagne because we made sure we had it in, chilled and ready. These are the evolutions we have learned.”

Sims states that 30% of petrol customers buy something in the shop and between 20 and 30% of customers in the store never buy fuel. “That means we’re attracting people, partly because we provide parking and partly because we actually provide the stuff they want. We believe we’ve created the only hybrid convenience store in Great Britain. Nowhere else can you get all the five main elements of what we’re offering in the Connect store. Even on our most transient sites, they’re selling lots of groceries, because people are fed up with going to Tesco and queuing for a few items.”

While early Connect sites were not profitable, Sims claims the second generation Connects are, estimating that less than 5% are still unprofitable. More efficient processes and cost base, and the doubling of sales in a year, have been major contributory factors to the change in fortunes.

BP owns about 500 sites of which about 300 are company operated – the rest are a mixture of tenancies, or Quantum franchise. With the exception of the BP/Safeway Partnership, Sims says where the company owns an asset, it will be Connect by the end of 2008/2009.

“The challenge for the rest of the network is that as sites will be dealer owned, dealer operated, we may look at the development of a franchise for Connect. But we want to get the offer right first. If we’d done a franchise for Connect two years ago, it would have been a disaster – it wasn’t cost-efficient. But we’ve learned our way through that. When we get to a place where we feel satisfied, then we can offer it to dealers.”