General Appearance: On my way from Watford I urgently needed fuel and found myself on the Dome roundabout (junction of the A41 and A412) and spoiled for choice. A service station is available at three of the roundabouts exits so would it be the Sainsbury supermarket, the Asda hypermarket or the Sainsbury Local Shell site? No contest, I turned into the most convenient of the sites - the Sceptre Local site.

This Sainsbury Local Shell service station is large and spacious and slightly elevated above the height of the road so both the Sainsbury Local and Shell branding is quite clear and visible.

Forecourt: In addition to six islands of pumps offering some 17 fuelling nozzles, there are separate HGV bays. All the pumps looked clean and in good order and none were cluttered by promotional display material. All-in-all, a good functional service station that also offers air, water, vacuum, a car wash and jet wash facilities. There was some litter around but given the number of customers using the service station and shop facilities during my visit (mid afternoon) this was perhaps to be expected.

There are some 25 designated parking spaces plus two for disabled parking.

In front of the shop were a numbers of offerings including newspapers, flowers and an ATM.

Shop: This is a typical well-managed Sainsbury Local convenience store. The multiple disciplines are clear to see and that rather makes it predictable - boring even?

Well not really, maybe certain multiple and symbol chain stores lack excitement but they meet the expectations of the shopper who looks to them with certain trust and to the regular shopper who would know where everything is displayed and can get in and out of the shop with speed.

As a motorist looking for some quick refreshment, I was rather disappointed. The hot drinks machine is at the entrance to the store and judging by its appearance is well used. There was spilt coffee and sugar all over the place. The shop does offer a wide range of snacks but they are dispersed throughout the store so it took some time to find something that attracted me.

This Sainsbury Local is a full-on c-store with a wide selection of offerings including many Sainsbury sub-brands such as Taste the Difference, Be Good to Yourself and So Organic. It offers an excellent range of fresh food and a number of seasonal lines but there seemed few promotional offers.

The customer toilet was grubby. The staff were busy re-stocking and only two tills were open.

Prognosis: During the past few years the development of the forecourt c-store sector has been impressive. Led by symbol groups and partnerships between multiples and oil companies, the pace of change is not diminishing.

Symbol groups have made great progress, both in terms of numbers of service stations supplied and the range offered, but still the multiples seem to have the edge in terms of fresh foods.

All retailers remain hungry for further progress and clearly there is no room for complacency.

Sainsbury Local has just opened its first motorway shop (at Birchanger Green services on the M11 near Stansted) and it will be interesting to see if it adapts its offering to specifically satisfy the motorist.

Diagnosis: I believe fresh foods and customer service are key to differentiating between stores and to building customer loyalty. Sainsbury is good at fresh foods and must ensure that this standard is maintained throughout its forecourt estate.

Within customer service I include customer toilets. Over the months my ’stealthchecks’ have revealed an overall poor standard of toilet facilities. Even exemplary customer service will be wasted if the customer has to use grubby and unpleasant toilets.

Prescription: So, a few New Year resolutions. That all forecourt c-stores strive even more to improve the provision of fresh foods and local foods with provenance. That forecourt c-stores make 2007 the year of customer service and that they join the British Toilet Association - but in any case determine to enter the Loo of the Year 2007 awards scheme.