It’s not often you get to liken a service station to a time travelling device from a TV science fiction series, but that’s the reaction of customers – including me – when stepping into the forecourt shop at Bellini’s in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Driving onto the forecourt at Bellini’s is pretty much like driving onto any other service station forecourt in the UK, but one step inside the shop is a whole different experience – it’s deceptively enormous which is why customers call it Doctor Who’s Tardis. At 7,000sq ft, the shop is surely one of the largest forecourt shops in the country and the fruits of a two-year development project completed in December 2003, which saw the introduction of a Costa Coffee shop, a sprawling off licence, a hot food-to-go operation and extensive delicatessen. The transformation has been met with overwhelming response from shoppers, who are not only astounded by the sheer size of the shop but also by the ambience created by first-rate design work. “When people walk through the door they say ‘wow’, and that’s exactly what we want,” says Peter Bellini, who owns the Shell-branded forecourt with wife Pat. And Bellini’s isn’t just impressing its customers – the site, which is supplied by Nisa, was recently named ‘Nisa Best Store 3,000sq ft to 8,000sq ft’ at Nisa-Today’s annual Nisa Member & Supplier Awards. Over the years the Bellinis have traditionally gone to shopfitters for store development work. “But if you want something different,” says Peter, “you have to go to designers. We’re trying to show people that they don’t have to shop in a shed, and going to a design company has been the best value for money we’ve spent. “But changing people’s perception of what independents can do is a battle. Consumers have been brainwashed by the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury and sadly a lot of people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Fifty-two year old Peter started his career as an engineer. He trained as a mechanic and received his Technician’s Certificate and the title of Technician of the Year from the People’s College in Nottingham at the age of 19. When he left school he began working for the family business – his father had been in the petrol retailing business with a car sales, repair workshop and petrol site at the other side of town since 1959. In 1986 when his father retired, Peter took over the business and sold the property to buy their current forecourt. It was an old Fiat dealership and ICI petrol site, which had been closed for about two years. The couple bulldozed it flat and rejuvenated the existing workshop building to create a forecourt shop. Ten years ago they built an office block and warehouse, followed by a new workshop, which allowed them to extend the store, and three years ago they built a basement warehouse. A year later they began work on the development of the site as it is now. Good business sense and being at the forefront of retail trends evidently runs in the family. Peter’s father ran a 1,100sq ft convenience store at the old site and was one of the first petrol stations in the UK to be granted a licence to sell alcohol – back in the early 1970s. “My father was selling used cars from a showroom but he found that they sold better outside so decided to turn the showroom into a local shop,” says Peter. “It was catering for the locality rather than foresight.” Peter and Pat have been working in partnership for about 25 years. Pat had been secretary to the chief drug buyer at Boots Pharmaceuticals but left after six years to work with Peter. “It works unbelievably well,” says Peter. “Pat is more staff orientated and I drive the business. Pat will listen to all the staff’s problems and help in the buying office. She keeps me on track and in my place!” New developments The introduction of a Costa Coffee shop in September last year has been a phenomenal success. “The brand sits well and it’s given us a platform to launch the coffee side of the business because consumers recognise the brand,” says Peter. “We’ve also tried to put our own mark on it by responding to customer feedback.” The coffee shop started off selling traditional coffee, paninis and a full range of pastries but shoppers were demanding more. “A lot of customers were asking why we didn’t do breakfasts – so we did. At weekends we now sell about 20 breakfasts in the mornings. Locals use the coffee shop as a treat because there’s nothing like it in the area.” Opposite the forecourt is the largest employer in the area – the hospital – so the coffee shop is buzzing with hospital staff at lunchtimes. The American Adventure theme park is also close by and before opening the coffee shop, staff at Bellini’s were finding that people were asking where they could go before the park opens. “We used to send them to McDonald’s but then we thought why not offer something ourselves,” says Peter. But the Bellinis didn’t enter into the coffee shop venture lightly. Before plunging in they did some market research involving questionnaires asking people what they wanted from their facility. “We received a lot of positive feedback,” says Peter. “If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right, as with everything we do.” Another standout feature of Bellini’s supermarket is the off licence, which is at least 500sq ft with an impressive range of wines and a walk-in beer chiller. Peter has a real passion for wine after studying them for about 20 years and earning his Wine Diploma in 1994. “We sell a lot wines you won’t find in the multiples because we’re passionate about quality,” explains Peter. “There’s a lot of rubbish around so we’re offering customers something different – something better than they can get in the multiples. But it’s a big education job to change buying habits. The wine may be another £1 a bottle but you get what you pay for.” The couple run wine tasting evenings where suppliers come into the store to talk to customers about the origins of their products. “We charge £5 a ticket and it was over subscribed last time,” says Peter. Customers evidently love the Bellini approach to wines. One customer recently spent £2,100 on 18 bottles of fine wine. “That’s not unusual,” says Peter. “And it’s the type of customer we want to encourage. We have a database of customers who are as passionate about wine as we are.” Since the store extension, wine sales are up 70 per cent and beers 40 per cent. Overall, shop sales are up 32 per cent on the same period last year, but Peter is reluctant to reveal total turnover for the store. The new food-to-go operation is developing well with their own kitchen producing hot food on site. The deli is also performing well with sales of fresh meat doubling since the transformation. The Bellinis have also increased their greetings card business by 400 per cent since creating their own card shop within the shop. “The thinking there was that if people want a card, they have to go into town, park the car and walk to the card shop,” explains Peter. “But if we can give them the same range and environment, and they can park outside, where would you rather go?” The excellent growth since the refit has also been in the face of mounting local competition. “A new 50,000sq ft Tesco opened last year less than a mile away so we’re glad we’re still here,” says Peter. And he puts their continued success and existence down to continual investment. “If you don’t invest in your business there’s only one way you’re going to go because the supermarkets will eat you up.” Bellini’s is conveniently situated on the busy main road between Ilkeston and Heanor, and attracts a lot of passing trade as well as local shoppers. “People travel from Birmingham, Leicester and Chester for the wine, and some customers travel five or 10 miles for our cooked ham,” says Peter. But when it comes to marketing, Peter admits that the business still has a lot to do. “It’s been word of mouth so far but we will have to look at marketing more closely,” he says. “We use the Nisa leaflet, which drives a lot of footfall. Nisa has been very successful for us and I don’t know why more independents don’t use the company. The staff helped us with layout and merchandising and have been very supportive.” On the fuel side of the business, sales are largely driven by price, says Peter. Annual volume is currently 4.5 million litres, but as part of a new exercise, they have introduced a policy of matching the multiples on price and so far volume is up by 27 per cent. “It’s hard to measure the impact of this exercise because we’re growing from our recent development, but it’s bound to have some impact because with 27 per cent more fuel volume, some of those customers are likely to buy something else as well, even if it’s just a Mars Bar. “Traditionally we have priced above the multiples and remained profitable, but if matching them means we won’t be then it’s not worth the extra volume. We’ll just see how things pan out – the jury is still out on that one.” The forecourt has been Shell-branded for five years and before that it was Esso branded during its Pricewatch years. “We were happy to see Pricewatch go,” he says. “What’s the point in being a busy fool? You have to make a profit.” Like many independents, Peter says their relationship with oil companies is not as good as it was some years ago. “But you just have to get on with what you’ve got and make the best of what’s out there,” he says. “Shell over the past few years has tried hard to turn things around with retailers – and maybe it has succeeded with some. “Our big focus now is the shop – that’s how we make a living. That and the workshop, which is steady and profitable and another string to our bow.” Peter says that another one of the challenges of petrol retailing today is finding good staff. But they don’t seem to be doing too badly on that front, with some members of staff having worked for the company for 30 years or more. One member of staff has just retired after 32 year’s service, while another has been with the business since school and is now 30 years of age. “The best thing is to grow your own,” says Peter. “We look after our staff so we’ve got a good core of people now and some good young people coming in.” Peter adds that the mountain of legislation petrol retailers have to deal with is an ongoing challenge. “Keeping on top of health and safety issues for example is a full time job – they don’t make it easy for us so if you have good people it makes the job a lot easier.” Peter says the key to success in the independent sector is quality, value for money and offering a point of difference. “As it says on the sign outside, this is a supermarket with a difference. But you can’t sit on your laurels, you have to work hard at making sure you maintain that point of difference and keep offering customers different things.” The long-term future of Bellini’s lies in the hands of Peter and Pat’s 20-year-old son James. His business credentials are impressive – already the business studies university student has successfully project managed the launch of the Costa Coffee shop. “He got the coffee shop off the ground,” says Peter. “He trained up the staff and has a good eye for detail and quality. He often comes home at the weekend with new ideas and kicks my backside!” But in the short-term, the future, says Peter, will involve more of the same. “The customer is ever demanding so unless we rise to their expectations we will fall. We’ve got a lot of fine-tuning to do – we want to move into sherries in the alcohol department, we’re looking at improving the sandwich selection – in fact we’re looking to improve everything all the time. You’ve never arrived – that’s the best way to put it. You’ve got to keep investing. You don’t always get it right first time so then it’s back to the drawing board. Keep at it, keep changing and keep trying new things.”