GENERAL APPEARANCE: As it’s over a year since I visited an Esso On the Run site, I decided to ’stealthcheck’ the next one I saw. Just on the southern edge of Banbury, on the A4260 Oxford Road, I saw the distinctive pole of an Esso On the Run and pulled in to make a visit.

FORECOURT: The site is shared with a smart Renault garage but there is good access to the forecourt and the four islands of pumps. The pole and actual pump prices were 2ppl less expensive than one of the ’big four’ superstores in Banbury.

It was mid-afternoon and there was a steady flow of customers - many refuelling and some shop-only customers. There are two designated customer parking spaces, the site was in good order but the litter bins were crammed full. Customer services include the almost obligatory air, water and vacuum; and at the back of the site a Tiger car wash running almost the entire length of the forecourt.

SHOP: A very small On the Run shop but a great example of how the essential convenience categories can all be accommodated in extremely limited space.

There was a written notice on the door explaining that the shop had to shut at the weekend because of staff shortages.

The entrance mat and flooring were dirty - clearly customers with muddy feet had traipsed all round and this rather spoiled the initial impression of the store. However, generally it was a bright and attractive store very much reflecting the On the Run image.

Like all the sections, beers and wines had very limited display space but it was difficult to shop as the shelves were obscured by a floor-standing display rack of Mars hanging bags.

Grocery products were represented by a very small range of ’top up’ essentials. Given the severe space restrictions, Costa coffee, confectionery, snacks and soft drinks were all well represented to satisfy the impulse ’eat now’ market.

An impressive block of black shelving was empty. From the shelf-edge labelling it should have displayed a range of Ginster products but there was not a single pack available.

The customer toilet was the best I have seen this year and wins my private Loo of the Year award.

The one member of staff I saw was very friendly although I didn’t think it was necessary to put my three snack purchases in such a large plastic bag.

PROGNOSIS: Reports indicate that the Esso subsidiary Retail Operating Company is determined to roll out the prize-winning On the Run format to a significant part of its forecourt business. At the moment there are around 100 On the Runs out of a possible 420.

’Fast, Fresh, Friendly’ appears to be the On the Run mantra. I like the basic On the Run format but the strict adherence to a formula can produce something bland without individual local distinctiveness.

DIAGNOSIS: I believe this forecourt shop has been operating under the On the Run banner for three years or more. Unfortunately, the size of the shop prohibits availability of the full foodservice or multipack offerings that are part of most On the Run outlets.

Time and again consumer research indicates that the most important features to attract shoppers are staff friendliness, speed of service, cleanliness and product availability. By and large my previous On the Run ’stealthchecks’ (September 2004 and November 2006) indicated that the stores scored well on staff training and speed of service. But stock availability seems a challenge.

PRESCRIPTION: The most important issue this site needs to address is the availability of staff. I am aware that the hiring/training of staff is a major issue but to have to close a site and miss a weekend’s trading is serious.

The On the Run sandwich offer is great but during my November 2006 visit the ’Sandwich of the Month’ was not available and on this visit there were no sandwiches of any variety available.

Retailing is all about satisfying existing customer demands while attracting new customers and On the Run is making good progress but there are some elements of its offering that need urgent attention.