GENERAL APPEARANCE: On the A35 about five miles west from Dorchester and on the road to Bridport is Winterborne Abbas. On the right at the entrance to the village I found my target, Bride Valley Motors. It’s an impressive site which includes a BP forecourt, KeyStore shop, car sales, service and repairs, and also incorporates Dorset Discount Tyres.

FORECOURT: The initial impression is of a well-signed large BP-branded forecourt. The canopy covers three pump islands with reasonably easy access but the space given over to the display of used cars results in very limited parking. The pumps looked clean but at least four nozzles were not in operation.

Despite premium fuel prices - at least 2ppl more than at forecourts in Dorchester and Bridport - there was a steady stream of vehicles refuelling.

As a result of the large area given over to used cars there is no space for car wash facilities. I could not see an air and water service although they may have been available in the service area to the rear of the forecourt.

Calor Gas, winter and barbecue fuels, plastic buckets, picnic chairs, flowers and newspapers were available out the front of the shop. The plastic newspaper sales unit was broken - to the point that it would probably be considered a health and safety risk.

Could the same be said of the outside customer toilet? Well that’s probably going too far but the facility is very nearly a disgrace.

SHOP: The KeyStore-branded shop is not large but offers a near full range of convenience store categories.

The category coverage - not extensive in brand choice - is augmented by some local products (sandwiches) and an eclectic range of non-food items. Space management and planograms seem not to be given high priority. Add to that a cleaning mop and bucket abandoned in one corner plus a muddle around the till area and the end result is near chaos. There was so much going on that there may have been plenty of special offers but they were not clear.

It was not easy to find what I wanted and I was disappointed that there was not a produce section. The consumer demand for ’fresh’ is not being addressed.

The one member of staff in the shop handled my transaction effectively.

PROGNOSIS: It’s an undeniable fact that unaffiliated independent retailers (whether or not located on a forecourt) are suffering. The recent IGD survey UK Convenience Outlook reports a significant drop in their number but there has been a growth in the number of independents joining a symbol group. In competitive trading conditions the benefits of group membership become yet more convincing to retailers.

Clearly the owners of Bride Valley Motors were convinced some years ago but now they are faced with a dilemma - or opportunity?

DIAGNOSIS: The Key Lekkerland central office is closing, leaving the future of the KeyStore symbol group in England and Wales uncertain. The situation in Scotland with JW Filshill seems more certain. But just what will the wholesalers Booker and Palmer & Harvey do with KeyStore?

KeyStore retailers must be reassured and may well be offered Premier or Mace membership as an alternative but would be well advised to see what’s on offer across the market and undertake an appraisal of what all the leading symbol groups have to offer. If the other symbol groups are on the ball they are probably beating a path to all KeyStore retailers right now.

PRESCRIPTION: I recommend that Bride Valley Motors considers its options and appraises what other symbol groups have on offer as soon as possible. A brand that is recognised and trusted by consumers is a must. Look for a symbol group that offers a comprehensive shop and business development programme. And one that offers a focused forecourt format would be a significant advantage.

But as a priority and before any examination of the symbol group programmes on offer, refurbish the customer toilet. See the facility as an essential part of your customer care programme and give it and your customers the care and attention they deserve.