GENERAL APPEARANCE: After leaving Guildford and travelling north on the very busy A3, I visited a BP Connect that – as it happens – is the last service station before the junction with the M25. Continuing my journey towards London on the A3 I thought it would be interesting to immediately compare and contrast this established site with the first service station after the M25, the comparatively new Esso On the Run format being trialled. Although only 15 miles separates the two sites, what I found was that in many and varied ways they are chalk and cheese.

It is obvious that the BP Connect service station at Wisley – based on a site together with a Little Chef – is a busy one. My arrival at 10.45am was behind the peak commuter travel time, but still most of the pumps were occupied, as were the HGV lanes. In addition to the designated Little Chef parking spaces there were some 20 spaces for Connect customers and I filled the last available one. The Esso On the Run service station at the Robin Hood North junction near Kingston must also be a busy site, and again I was able to park in the last up front space.

FORECOURT: At the BP site the pump area is tight but manageable, with the never-ending flow of traffic. There was air and water available – although not well signposted – but no car wash service is offered. To the front of the shop is a cash point and nightpay counter. A good range of BBQ fuels was available and the display of flowers had been moved to just inside the entrance door as it was a blazing hot day and the sun would have frazzled them in no time.

In contrast the Esso site offers a range of services including a very impressive Tiger Wash facility. The car-washing menu was prominently merchandised at the front of the store, together with examples of the pliable brush-wash material used. There were no BBQ requisites on offer and the flowers looked ready to wilt in the sun. The forecourt is spacious, the canopy high, and separate from the store entrance.

SHOP: As I entered the On the Run store it did feel as if I was leaving the Esso/Tiger motoring offer on the forecourt for a different experience. Above the door it proclaims: Fast. Fresh. Friendly. I wondered if these promises would be fulfilled.

What struck me first were the empty shelves – yes the very first section of shelving you see was empty. It was for bread and they had not one single loaf in the store. On the way to make my usual check on the price of milk (fairly competitive at 69p for one litre) I was stunned by the dairy cabinet. It was virtually empty, a couple of packs of butter and yoghurt, but no milk. Not one single pack of milk of any type or any size was available in the store! But the display units were innovative – new to me in the UK, the dairy cabinet was black. And the display looked stunning – well those few packs of butter and yoghurt did. What a crying shame it wasn’t fully merchandised. It is clear that Esso have spared no cost on the in-store display units and I very much liked the multi-shelved ice cream cabinet. But again it was spoiled by the top shelf being totally empty. In contrast the crisps & snacks section and confectionery units were so tightly merchandised and faced up that customers may well have felt reluctant to disturb the perfect display.

Time for a coffee and the Costa offering was great. The same cannot be said for the Delice de France hot food selection as only one item was available (it was by now 12 noon) but a larger range was being baked... if I could wait 15 minutes. So much for ‘Fast’!

The number of staff in store amazed me. They were all attired in a smart uniform and there was so much coming and going I wondered what was happening. None – apart from those on the tills and serving at the café point – were interacting with customers. When I asked a member of staff if they had any milk I was informed ‘no’. A delivery expected at 7am had not arrived, the shops storage refrigeration had broken down...oh, and the exit door was malfunctioning. But why so many staff? They were training apparently.

This On the Run store has been open for less than a year and is a tested global design. I liked the layout, display units and decor of this store, but it was spoiled partly by the out-of-stocks and by a great heap of empty and part-full cartons of crisps by a door, which I assume gives staff access to a stock room, and a trolley loaded with outers of confectionery destined for the fitments but abandoned in front of the pay points. For me, slovenly retailing ruined the great ambience of the store.

The BP shop is not a state-of-the-art Connect store. I guess it’s been open for some years; it has all the necessary offerings demanded by the motorist in a hurry. It’s very well used, it’s working hard and I should think it’s quite profitable.

It proudly promotes by window banners and in-store radio that it is the British Sandwich Association ‘En Route Sandwich Retailer of the Year’. This particular Wild Bean Café – whose generic tag line is Real Food. Real Coffee. Real Quick – puzzled me. Real Quick it was not! Firstly, it was difficult to get served via a very small gap between coffee machines on the left and food display units on the right. Secondly, you can’t pay for your purchases at the café – no, on trust it seems you have to queue again and pay for what you say you have ordered at the main tills. Then you queue again at the café to collect your order. Puzzling and a mighty frustration to many drivers and their passengers who were obviously in a hurry and wanted to be ‘Real Quick’.

At the pumps on the forecourt, in-store smoothies and shakes were being promoted. They had sold out of vanilla so a regular black coffee had to do. It was OK, and while sitting at a table to drink it I was able to observe the action in-store for a few minutes.

For most of my visit there were only two of three tills working and the customers in line numbered eight to 12. Interestingly almost none were fuel-only customers and additional purchases covered most sections in the store. Although I didn’t witness the purchase of the kid’s water cannons, which were on offer – in fact the display units looked intact. I don’t think they had sold any! As you can tell I still struggle to understand the logic of some of the WIGIG (when it’s gone it’s gone) promotions around.

PROGNOSIS: This BP Connect must be a gold mine. It is a very well-shopped store and as a consequence looks tired and in need of a makeover – even some serious refurbishment.

The Esso On the Run is potentially a great store too, but the negative impression left by the out-of-stocks and non-availability of hot food at the café will linger.

DIAGNOSIS: Weakness is provocative – give in and it gets worse! Esso really must sort out its supply problem and I expect it will be appointing a new supplier of milk and bread for this store.

I was fascinated by the fact that so many staff were receiving training in the store during the time of their stock crisis and on the face of it they were doing absolutely nothing about it! On the Run is not just about a revised store format but a new culture operated by ROC UK. As I understand it they hope to take away from staff a lot of the back-office administration to free them up to be customer focused. Perhaps they need also to be empowered to think and act outside the box. For example, to visit the local cash & carry to purchase emergency supplies – an independent retailer would have taken this action. And with so many staff available surely the manager – and the trainers – should have detailed staff to greet customers to deal with any potential difficulties.

PRESCRIPTION: So, in many ways two quite different stores but both seem to be going a long way to meet a common aim of satisfying busy drivers needing a range of refreshment fast. And what more could they do? I think the answer is a grass roots retailing response. Sure it’s about the store and its offer. But above all it’s about staff. It’s about training. It’s about a culture supported by real investment totally focused on delivering exceptional customer service 24/7.