General Appearance: Just outside Thetford on the busy A134 from Bury St Edmunds, is the Nuns Bridges Filling Station. Ideally situated for passing traffic, the site is surrounded by two quite dense areas of housing

I could see the Jet-branded pole ahead but the price space against each type of fuel was blank.

Forecourt: To my surprise I realised that all the pumps were marked as ’not working’ - the filling station had no fuel on offer! Some serious development work was under way - I assumed the work was to do with the underground storage tanks and that helped to explain why there was no fuel.

Despite the small problem of having no fuel, the pumps looked clean. All other forecourt services appeared to be in good working order - including a jet wash, air, water and vacuum.

The front of the shop had a good array of offers and services from an ATM and flowers, through to Calor Gas and winter fuels.

There was a little litter around the site and due to the temporary loss of space as a result of the development work, only three designated parking spaces - none of which were for disabled badge holders. This reduced parking space explained the ’abandoned’ cars around the site, as shop-only customers sought somewhere to leave their cars.

Shop: This is a clean and bright Spar-branded c-store. But a Spar store with a difference - it has two shops within the store. One to the rear is a Post Office (traditional fortress style) - perhaps nothing exceptional about that, but the second is a barber’s salon. Called Motorhead, the salon is run by a professional barber. Having finished the hair of one customer I chatted to Tom the barber who informed me that the salon had been open for seven months and trade was "steady". Full marks to the owner for establishing such a real point of difference.

Apart from this the shop is a typical Spar. I guess it’s a little less than 2,000sq ft and was probably refurbished a few years ago. It offers a comprehensive c-store range including off licence, Bake & Bite, hot drinks, news, and a dry cleaning and photocopy service. A small range of pre-packed produce and some large sacks of potatoes were available. A good range of Spar products was on offer. However, I was not aware of many offers or local produce.

I visited the shop mid-morning on a Friday and arrived at the same time as a Spar wholesaler delivery. The delivery was just in time as there were quite a few empty spaces on the shelves. The customer toilet was tiled and clean but about to run out of loo paper.

It was half-term in the area and the shop was busy. The one checkout operator was coping and dealt well with the customer ahead of me who had a complicated question about his mobile phone top up. She thought fuel would be available in four or five days.

Prognosis: There is no doubt in my mind that the Nuns Bridges Filling Station has been the subject of constant re-evaluation and investment. I hope that the current ’development work’ will result in a new and improved fuel service for motorists. Retailers need to innovate to develop a competitive difference. A barbers shop within a c-store is certainly different.

Diagnosis: To gain a competitive edge retailers need to work in partnership with their major suppliers. In the case of Nuns Bridges, Spar is the chosen partner. Over the years Spar has certainly demonstrated an expertise to grow retailers’ margins and sales through retail development. But, in the current competitive market, is membership of a symbol group sufficient to truly excite customers and drive businesses forward?

Prescription: So what could Nuns Bridges do? With Jet it should relaunch its fuel. It should stock a range of local produce and products with provenance. With Blakemore/Spar it should work towards a My Shop is Your Shop (MSYS) promotion to tie in with all the national and local media awareness that will be created for this year’s National Independence Week activity in June and thus build on its service to the local community. In other words, become a local retailer community champion of the area.