Forecourt designer Robert Onion has seen the future of fuel retailing and warns there’s a radical shake-up ahead.

As an expert on forecourt and shop formats in many parts of the world, he is sure the years ahead will see some very challenging and exciting changes for the independent sector. But retailers need to completely rethink the way they operate if they want to succeed.

"On the whole I think it’s a sector that needs revolution," says Onion. "It hasn’t changed much since the ’60s and ’70s in terms of format. And we want to work with people who want to shake it up. In the ’70s everything became quite bland it’s a sector that’s in need of revolution.

"If you think about every other sector, such as banking, hotels and supermarkets, they’ve all changed immeasurably. Even buying a car is a completely different experience now to what it was 40 years ago. Every other sector has been turned on its head. I think the fuel retailing sector is in need of some radical thinking. If a forecourt was being run by a company like Virgin or Pret A Manger the approach would be very different."

Onion, whose London-based consultancy Circle has worked on designing forecourts in areas as diverse as the Middle East, Northern Europe and Italy, says it’s vital to put a brand at the centre of a fuel retailing business. He explains: "The oil majors are exiting the retail arena and that will have a major impact on forecourts. Independent retailers will start to develop their own brand and differentiate themselves. For example, look at the Applegreen fuel brand. Its operator Petrogas is thinking more deeply about things like customer service. In fact, it’s more like Pret A Manger in its thinking. I expect there will be even more of a shake up and that the independents will become stronger and more confident and develop their own brands more."

Onion says this has already started happening in a major way with forecourts in some parts of the Middle East. Circle has worked for many years in countries such as Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Projects have ranged from the architectural design of new sites and the modernisation of existing ones, to creating and developing brands. In 1996 Circle was asked to help leading petrol retailer Emarat, which operates in the United Arab Emirates and internationally, to start a fundamental re-positioning of its brand. The company wanted to move towards being a service-driven consumer brand and Circle helped to create a new brand portfolio for the company, including Bakeria for bakery products and Café Arabicca its own coffee brand.

The sites also have a ’Fasttrack’ service offering customers car repairs while they wait. "It’s a fast, high-quality service," says Onion. "One of the lessons that UK retailers can learn from this part of the world is about offering first class service. For example, sites have petrol pump attendants. While your car is being filled up they clean the windscreen for free customers demand and expect this kind of service. It’s all about going the extra mile for customers. A rewarding retail experience is much more satisfying. And that’s the advantage that independent retailers have they can get close to their customers and deliver this.

"The core thing that has to change in UK forecourts is service. Overall, sites in the UK are being run to the lowest denominator, without enough staff and without staff being trained properly. A customer can be driving a £35,000 car and like shopping in expensive places. They’ve got money to spend but they’re not going to spend it in a forecourt if it is dirty or unpleasant. And it’s not just in the UK, it’s all over Europe. It’s time for a change. And I think we will see one over the next five to 10 years.

"I would say that in the UK the Applegreen brand is different. Petrogas has said the shop is more important than the fuel side. It has developed a shop experience that’s quite different to most of the other forecourt shops. For example, its staff are expertly trained, which is quite unusual. I think this will happen more in forecourts, even to the extent of having attendants on the forecourt to wash windscreens. Retailers can charge a premium for this. It’s a simple thing but it means a lot to people. They also have good products in the Petrogas site shops. It feels more like a high-street grocery experience than a forecourt."

Onion, who relies on a small core team of 15 staff at Circle as well as a clutch of freelancers, can boast some big high-profile clients. These include BP Circle has worked with the oil company to design and deliver its global employee awards scheme for the past four years and working to develop the Q8 brand. But size isn’t everything, and Onion says it’s still possible for independents to create differentiation, no matter what their size. This could be through stocking local or homemade cakes in the store or by helping a customer with a problem on the forecourt.

He adds: "A lot of customers don’t know how much they’re paying for fuel. But people will drive an extra 20 miles to stop at a BP site with an M&S, or to a Costa Coffee that’s the power of a brand. The marketplace is changing and it will change even more. The challenge for the client is to develop the brand in the long term. Brands are living things they don’t exist on the page but on the forecourt."

About 75% of Circle’s work is in the forecourt sector, and Onion’s goal is that in the next three to four years it becomes the agency that people come to for energy and retail branding internationally.

Finally, the environment is going to be even more important to future businesses, and that includes forecourts. Circle recognises that UK shoppers are more concerned about the environment than ever before. Retailers will have to become more environmentally-friendly and this means becoming more ethical and having more corporate responsibility.

Onion says: "The environment will be a big issue for retailers, whether it’s the way they build the forecourt or the services they offer in the shop. Company policy will be important for example, does the business use renewable energy or recycle water?

"In the future, companies won’t be able to hide things so much there will be more customer power for purchases. People want greener fuels and are becoming much more demanding about how organisations behave. And the market will have to adapt to that."