Where else do you go apart from Halfords, if you want something for your car in a hurry, says Rakesh Sharma, one of the managing directors of the Sharma Falcon Group, when asked why he still carries car care items across his 14 sites. While many forecourt retailers have been tempted to turn their backs on car care displays in favour of more chillers, Rakesh is still keen on the category. Indeed he allocates anything between 2m and 5m of display space to car care in each of his forecourt stores. These each have six shelves and a peg board backing for even more products.

"If you’re going somewhere early in the morning and the night before you discover your bulb has blown, where do you go? Halfords has closed at 8pm and the hypers only carry things like air fresheners and shampoo, so the forecourt store is the obvious place to go. It’s very important that all forecourt shops stock car care and the margins are still there."

Rakesh reckons the key is to stock a comprehensive car care range, from light bulbs and windscreen wipers to screen washes and air fresheners; all professionally displayed and with regular promotions.

"Maccess is our partner of choice; they understand this market the details and the stock requirements, which do vary from location to location. Even with sites with limited space for car care, there are always different ways of introducing and displaying new lines. It’s very important for us that we offer our customers new and exciting products; that way they come back for more."

He says they run regular promotions, which work really well, such as buy some oil and get a free air freshener. "When it comes to lubricants, it’s essential to stock the market leader, Castrol, which outsells all other brands but it is important to us that we work in partnership with our fuels supplier and stock their lubricant range as well. Gulf, for example, has an excellent range, with all products meeting the latest manufacturer specifications.

"And with a two- to three-day turnaround, and a 60ltr minimum order requirement, there is very little impact on cash flow."

New products in his car care range include DIY windscreen repair kits but Rakesh says an interesting development in this sector is the increase in sales of electrical items linked with everyday use including mobile phone and ipad chargers and USB adapters. These are stocked alongside car care items and also by the till to take advantage of impulse purchases.

Graham Tissiman, sales and marketing manager at the Convenience Distribution Group, believes customers expect to find car care and lubes in forecourts: "This is from a habit-forming perspective as car care has been found in these locations as long as they have existed."

He says car care has considerable advantages as a range to stock: "There are no out-of-date or stock rotation issues; there is limited cost in display compared to the energy used keeping chiller cabinets operating; and there are high margins. There is also the advantage of incremental sales, such as sponge with car shampoo and also emergency purchases. When the warning light goes on in the car for low oil, the customer expects to be able to purchase it from their nearest forecourt. Satisfying customers’ expectations is important for any business."

Tissiman reports that the category is performing quite steadily: "This is because there will always be a core of people who will clean and valet their cars themselves. And cars will always have problems so there is the need for fuel cans, tow rope, bulbs and jump leads." Impulse purchases such as air fresheners are also always popular.

"Recently the Jelly Belly air freshener range has proved popular and this year a new product called Yo-Jello is being launched. It has the advantage of being able to be displayed by sticking to glass surfaces and dashboards as well as hanging from the rear view mirror."

He says it’s always worth promoting air fresheners: "At CDG we produce an air freshener stand. This sits on the counter and we rotate stock featuring a new air freshener every two months."

Finally, we cannot talk about car care without talking about the weather.

Turtle Wax marketing manager, Lesley Barratt, says rainfall affects sales but it can drive car owners inside their vehicles: "It might be raining, but drivers can still clean inside their dashboards and their carpets which is why it’s important to have a balance of interior and exterior products."

She adds that mums in cars with children are also keen for ’area specific’ products such as wipes for getting food off upholstery or mud off carpets.

She says there are ways to upsell too, and points to the jet wash as an area where extra sales can be made. "There’s an opportunity when someone’s paying for a jet wash to do some cross-selling and sell them a wax that they can use when the vehicle is still wet."

Another trend Barratt notes is in maintenance, specifically in touch-up pens and headlight repair kits. "If your headlights are dulled or yellow, the beam can be compromised and a vehicle can then fail an MOT. We do a restore kit which retails at between £10 and £15, and this is selling well."

retailer view

David Cox, Saintfield Road Service Station, Lisburn
"We have four x 1m bays of car care in our 3,000sq ft store. In January, we sold £1,698 of car care items and £645 of motor oil.
"When the first frost of winter comes we can sell a load of de-icer and screen wash off the counter, but this winter has been wet but not very cold.
"It’s still the old favourites that sell best like air fresheners, car polish, fuel cans and light bulbs. Air fresheners are a big seller; Magic Trees are best.
"I don’t see car care as price sensitive so we charge full price and don’t do promotions.
"We get asked by customers what oil their car needs all the time, and are happy to put oil in customers’ cars. The rest is pretty straightforward except for light bulbs. In general we find that if someone is happy to change a bulb they’re competent enough to find the bulb they need.
"Our range really only covers very cosmetic stuff. We haven’t sold spark plugs, windscreen wipers or fan belts for years.  
"I think if you have a decent forecourt you should carry some car care. Motorists expect it. It’s an easy category. We don’t have to worry about sell-by dates. The only thing you have to do is watch for shoplifters as some items are small but high value."