Just north of Oxford at Kidlington on the A4260 is a Sainsbury supermarket service station and just as you enter Banbury is an Esso On the Run site. Both are bright, well focused, busy ‘premier division’ service stations and c-stores. Smack bang in the middle of these two on the crossroads with the B4030 is Hopcrofts Holt Service Station, a joint branded Key Shop/Jet site. A mid ‘first division’ site that I fear may struggle to gain promotion.

GENERAL APPEARANCE: It was mid-afternoon when I arrived at this site, the weather was dull and so was the forecourt! I would think it was false economy not to have the pole and canopy lights on in those conditions as drivers could well pass the place before realising it was there. The narrow site includes a service garage and used car sales operation.

FORECOURT: The pump area is tight and best approached from the south. The usual range of services was available but there was nothing distinctive about the offerings although the cash machine was new. The outside unisex toilet was a bit of a downer. Located to the rear of the site it was somewhat hidden behind a hinged wooden screen used to hide a large refuse bin. It was in darkness and rather in need of some serious refurbishment. The cleaning rota (provided by another fuel company – not Jet) on the inside of the door showed no entries. There are a limited number of parking spaces for shop customers.

SHOP: The Key Shop sign above the entrance to the shop was illuminated. The shop is small and narrow but includes all the main category sections you would expect to find in a larger c-store. The grocery section displayed a very tight range but I suspect they were the wrong products. The chilled cabinet offering was wide but there were a few out-of-stocks. There was an interesting display of locally-made sandwiches – old-fashioned ‘door steps’ with good fillings. Opposite the chilled cabinet, which also offered a range of savoury products, was a short counter with a microwave and a Nestlé hot drinks machine. A wide range of confectionery, crisps and snacks was available and there was wine and beer in a chiller. The news section was a bit of a mess. There was no fresh produce on offer. It was difficult to see the range of frozen food available as the top of the cabinet was being used as a dumping ground for cartons of replenishment stock.

The one member of staff was friendly and at the end of my transaction concluded with a ‘thank you darling’, which helped to lift the spirits on such a drab day!

PROGNOSIS: It is estimated that the independent dealer will, in 2005, have a greater share of the UK fuel market than for many years. That’s good but it is a factor of the market. Many are becoming very efficient operators of c-stores. That’s good too but it is not by chance. Far from it. It is the product of a very deliberate decision by the operator, and in my view, the best forecourt c-stores are developed in close partnership with their chosen symbol group, both retailer and wholesaler seeming to have ambition, professionalism, discipline and success as part of their business DNA. I wonder if these attributes are as developed with Key retailers and wholesalers.

DIAGNOSIS: The owner has tried hard to incorporate many categories in this shop but it’s difficult to identify just what is on offer. The shop lacks theatre and needs some devices to stop customers going straight from the entrance to the till and back out again. Perhaps departmental signs, promotions, floor displays or, as it is a fairly rural store, local produce. I am sure with imagination a solution could be found that would increase the turnover and profitability of the shop.

A radical solution would be to extend the existing shop by converting part of the garage and car sales office. Although a major investment, it should ensure promotion to the premier league and all the benefits that would bring.

PRESCRIPTION: As usual my plea is for more attention to ‘retail detail’ such as the toilets. Management time to think through and develop some shop razzmatazz would pay dividends.