GENERAL APPEARANCE: Pump Hill Service Station is on the B1027 which runs between Clacton and Colchester. It is clearly marked by two poles and shares an area with a car sales business.

FORECOURT: I was concerned when I noticed the advertised pole price for diesel was 111ppl and I needed to refuel! Under a Gulf-branded canopy there are four islands of pumps but I counted some 10 nozzles that were ’out of service’ and temporarily covered in plastic bags. There is an additional and separate diesel pump that I assume is for the use of HGVs and perhaps vehicles towing caravans. The pump islands under the canopy are each crowned with the ubiquitous non-food offers.

The forecourt has plenty of parking space and offers air, water and vacuum services. There is a choice of three car wash options - car wash, jet wash and a £5 hand wash but none were being used while I was on site. To the front of the shop winter fuel, flowers and papers were on offer.

I was directed to the toilet and an unmarked door opened onto a grimy, gloomy toilet area - one of the poorest I’d seen in a long time!

SHOP: The shop is small (some 450 sq ft) but contains an amazingly wide range of products. The shelving and refrigeration units are not new and I was concerned at the low stock level of certain products. For example there was no 2pt semi-skimmed milk available. Some of the products on display were not brand leaders and some valuable shelf space was occupied by things like plastic toys and jerry cans.

The shop hours are advertised as 7am to 10pm and ’Shop Locally’ promotion lines were identified both on the window and instore. The member of staff who dealt with my transaction was friendly and helpful.

PROGNOSIS: The arrival of the Tesco superstore in Clacton has been challenging for small businesses in the town. The Gulf team and its retail consultant helped Pump Hill improve the shop front, increased lines stocked, introduced a merchandising format, a regular offer in each category and an off licence.

The Gulf research had identified that the site was in an area of high footfall and had potential to improve. The consequences of failure must have been stark. But with a minimum financial investment, Pump Hill Service Station has seen a measurable improvement in shop and fuel sales.

So far so good. But what of the future?

DIAGNOSIS: In the current trading environment price is important but customers will pay a reasonable premium for convenience. What they are looking for is stock availability, fresh and chilled, local products and an offering including food for now and food for later.

The product and price solutions and other developments introduced to Pump Hill Service Station following the Gulf consultancy have served the owners well up to a point, but I expect more radical solutions and action are now required

PRESCRIPTION: Some immediate action should be a reassessment of fuel prices. At the time of my visit (early December 2007) Pump Hill’s price for diesel (111ppl) was at the very high end of competition and its differential for unleaded (105ppl) seemed too great.

As a priority the toilet should either be refurbished or closed to customers.

An extensive product range is very limited in space by necessity, reducing facings to a minimum. To avoid out of stocks a very tight ’retail management’ regime is required. I am not sure this was amply demonstrated at the time of my visit. Perhaps an exercise to delist slow sellers and give more facings to faster sellers would help? I believe wholesalers are now working hard to offer local products to retail customers and an experiment with a limited range may add interest to the current sound product offering.

The business has benefited from the first aid administered by the Gulf consultants but for the long term, a more drastic remedy may be required. That remedy will continue to demand the owner’s commitment to a high level of retail detail but a further step is needed - financial investment and a refurbishment of the shop.