Lack of space is a perennial c-store challenge, but forecourts have something the average high street retailer doesn’t – 10s of square feet in front of the shop on the forecourt which can extend selling space and act as an extra shop window.

But few operators have yet to fully exploit the area, as Scott Annan, director at convenience retailing consultancy SRCG observes: “It’s as if they think, we’ve got this space out the front, what can we put in it? When I’m putting petrol in my car there’s nothing that really gets up and grabs me and says ‘you’ve got to buy this’. To me it looks like storage rather than retail.”

It’s true to say that the front of the store is still dominated by categories such as flowers, car care and bbq, but even in these traditional product areas suppliers are beginning to encourage a category management approach usually reserved for the shop floor.

This, says Derek Mynott, director of marketing services at HL Display, is due in no small part to the arrival of the major multiple grocers in the channel and the enormous strides made by the likes of BP Connect who have introduced a higher degree of retail professionalism to forecourt stores. “In recent years the appearance of joint-venture forecourts has been raising consumers’ expectations of what a forecourt should provide. Independent forecourts and chains are now meeting the challenge of the nationals by developing and maximising their own available retail space,” says Mynott.

This means ranging, merchandising and stock levels are as important outside the store as inside. Decosol, for example, found sales of its five-litre Readymix screenwash product increased by 36% when it added a high visibility pallet collar and merchandised it on a portable stand which can be moved across the forecourt to optimise sales according to the weather.

Similarly, CPL Distribution, which supplies solid fuels, wood products and charcoals, emphasises the importance of good housekeeping. “The outside apron of the forecourt is very important as this is the first impression the consumer has. The area maximises its potential by stacking product high or filling merchandising units to give immediate impact,” says Susan Hindley, business development manager at CPL.

Evidence of just how powerful this part of the store can be is the effect the location has on newspaper purchases. According to Mike Greene, ceo at Harris International Marketing (HIM), up to 30% of newspaper sales on the forecourt are bought on impulse in response to the headlines so to not have them outside simply results in missed sales. In addition, HIM research suggests that newspapers are the highest traffic generators in overall convenience. “Therefore to promote it as an external category will attract shoppers in their own right rather than just fuel buyers,” says Greene.

Making the area attractive and professional is a must. Free standing poster display supplier Signwaves has a range of solutions such as its Swinger 300, which incorporates a wallet for displaying 20 x 30-inch promotional posters that can be changed quickly to keep consumers informed of the latest offers instore. It also supplies a 30 x 40-inch or 40 x 60-inch display unit for longer distance visibility.

If the promotion is particularly innovative, it’s certainly worth using every means at your disposal to drive the message home – and promotions need not just focus on grocery. Greene at HIM, for example, suggests retailers should use the shop front for bigger promotional projects. “In conjunction with maybe a Halfords you could run an offer for a mountain bike and literally put one on display,” he says. “That kind of approach seems to be doing quite well in Australia. Try taking a non-food high-ticket item and promote it each month.”

The Australian forecourt market is also boosting profits by using front of store to sell mini-motorbikes for children. “It may sound crazy to sell high-ticket children’s toys – these things are $1,000 – but according to the Australian Association of Convenience Stores, forecourts are selling one or two a week. That may not sound a lot but there’s about $200 profit on one item sale – you’d have to sell a lot of Mars bars and Coca Cola to make the same profit,” says Greene.

And you don’t necessarily have to stock the product itself outside the store, explains Greene, citing BP Connect’s use of cardboard display units to promote Stella Artois. “You are restricted in where you can sell alcohol on forecourts, for example they can’t sell it outside, so through cardboard engineering Interbrew created what looked like cases of Stella,” he says. “What that did was use the space to promote the fact they had an off licence. It said to customers while they were filling up, ‘do you want some beers – we sell it here.’ It’s great communication without any theft risk and without contravening the licence,” adds Greene.

Using well-positioned displays shouldn’t just shout about product – pricing can be as crucial in the forecourt channel as it is on the high street, continues Greene. “Forecourts seldom clearly price external products. The perception is that forecourts can be very expensive, therefore lack of clear pricing just feeds that when in reality most forecourts are not particularly more expensive than B&Q and the like for charcoal, so they should really promote their prices rather than hide them.”

In today’s retail environment, forecourts are having to adopt a category management approach to their instore offer. If they can extend that attention to detail to the front of the store there’s a chance to not only meet consumer expectations of a professionally run c-store, but even exceed them.