Following the announcement that Somerfield is up for sale, I wanted to see what any potential buyer might get for its money, so I selected a recently-opened Somerfield forecourt store on the A31 immediately west of Ringwood, on the Hampshire/Dorset border.

GENERAL APPEARANCE: Just past an exit slip road on the A31 is the Texaco/Somerfield site. It is well signed but if drivers do not know it’s there, and they’re not in the left hand lane, it is a difficult site to access.

FORECOURT: The forecourt is large and there are four pump islands. A full range of Texaco fuels, including Autogas, is available and all the pumps and nozzles were clean and in good working order. Prices were at the top end of main route service station prices at the time of my visit. The Texaco branded canopy is massive and gave a ’top heavy’ look to the fuelling/front-of-store area. I liked the way the forecourt area had been landscaped.

Air, water and vacuum services were available but the new ’soft brush’ car wash was out of action. A good number of customer parking spaces were available.

Around the pump islands various special offers and services were being promoted and I was impressed by the ’menu’ of information featured on the shopfront.

Outside the shop were winter fuels, screen wash, flowers and newspapers. The top of the newspaper dispenser was thick with dust and gave completely the wrong impression for a store that was trying to impress with its fresh offer.

SHOP: The store was opened at the end of December 2007. It is large and bright with modern fittings, plenty of refrigeration and a comprehensive range of c-store categories. Customers could do their weekly shop in this store. There was a good range of beers, wines and spirits with a good selection chilled. Produce was displayed in both ambient and chilled sales units. The packaged grocery section was large - perhaps too large for a main route forecourt store?

The market for food-to-go was recognised but the Bake ’n’ Bite and Coffee Nation offerings fell well short of current café-style offerings.

Displays were well faced, but a number of promo-tional lines were sold out. Prices were on the high side.

The customer toilets were fine.

During my visit I could see only one member of staff in the store and she was hard pressed to keep up with customer transactions.

PROGNOSIS: The future for Somerfield is clear - it’s up for sale. It is reported that the demand for forecourt sites has never been greater with most buyers wanting them for the potential of the stores, and it can be assumed that prices paid for sites will be out of reach for most independent operators.

DIAGNOSIS: Recent development in the forecourt store sector have not only seen all the big supermarkets, symbol groups and fuel brands establishing a significant presence, but also the trial and development of new formats and partnerships.

I cannot imagine that an organisation the size of Somerfield did not research with some care and sophistication the potential of its new Ringwood service station. Somerfield has made a considerable financial investment in this site but I wonder if it has a ’one solution fits all’ policy.

The market town of Ringwood is well serviced by a large Sainsbury and a Waitrose, a number of specialist food shops and c-stores. Perhaps the new Somerfield store should have been more focused on the transient A31 traffic market rather than its current neighbourhood-type offering - with less food for later and more food for now.

PRESCRIPTION: I suggest that Somerfield and/or the new owners reconsider this site and give further thought as to how to exploit the considerable consumer demand for fresh lines and food to go.

The store’s fresh offering is there but I suspect it’s not generating the level of sales that other forecourt c-stores are achieving. Are far as I could see, there was no local produce or products. The developing café concept is missing in this store too. So, plenty for Somerfield or its new owners to go for.