I was due to be in North London and knew there was a fairly new Sainsbury Local/Shell site in Muswell Hill on Colney Hatch Lane and thought it would make an interesting visit. So I logged on to the Sainsbury website and used the store locator facility to identify its exact location. That achieved with ease, I logged onto Tesco’s website to find a Tesco Express/Esso in the area that I could visit and so compare both offerings.

The result of the Sainsbury store locator search was – at first sight – impressive. It informed me of the store address, phone number and manager’s name. There was a map and details of the store’s opening hours, number of checkouts and car parking spaces. Intriguingly, it also told me about the nearest tube station and local bus routes. A list of the store’s ranges and facilities was included but most confusing was the fact the site included a petrol station that sold nothing! Under the heading ‘petrol station’, six items were listed – CityPetrol, CityDiesel, FourStar, Unleaded, Jetwash and Carwash – but all were crossed as ‘not available’. I guess it was because it was not a Sainsbury-branded petrol site, but why not promote Shell fuels?

The Tesco web search indicated that there was a Tesco Express easily within reach in Camden Road. The store locator gave the store address, including a map, how far the site was from my search entry (Colney Hatch Lane) and that the store’s facilities included customer toilets. And that was it – no mention of Esso or any other services.

In fact, when at the store I was informed that it had no customer toilets! The store locator facility offered by both Sainsbury and Tesco appears to be a great customer service but both were seriously flawed.

THE FORECOURTS: The Sainsbury Local/Shell site is a smallish corner site with just two pumps with three nozzles on each side. No car wash facilities are offered and the air/water point was not working. Up-front parking is limited and during my visit was further restricted as a Sainsbury delivery lorry took up much of the space. There is a pedestrian walkway, an external display of Shell lubricants, a Sainsbury Bank ATM and a collection of shopping trolleys. In contrast the busy Tesco Express/Esso site is huge. A large marked car parking area warned that incorrectly parked cars would be clamped, and indeed two were. The Esso pumps were in the old red livery and the site looked in need of a spring clean. Despite adequate space, no car wash facilities were available but – in what seemed a well-rehearsed response – I was told the Total garage opposite would be able to help.

THE SHOPS: As you would expect, this Sainsbury Local is no top-up garage kiosk but a true destination c-store. Clearly its main aim is not the motorist but the large residential population nearby. Trading hours are 7.30am to 11pm seven days a week and in most respects the store appears to conform to the Sainsbury Local forecourt/Shell formula, as I guess it was some 2,000sq ft in selling area and stocked about 2,000 lines.

Hot food-to-go didn’t exist and I wasn’t impressed with the sandwiches and savoury snacks range. I’m not exactly part of the gourmet nation, but I am willing to try the new and even exotic, but nothing here attracted me and in the end I came away with a couple of price-reduced egg custard tarts! The magazine section looked good as did ready-meals and there was an extensive range of chilled wines and beers. The large fresh produce section was devastated by out-of-stocks (although what was in stock looked in excellent condition) and the milk section was without the main selling two-pint semi-skimmed. The core grocery section seemed dark and a little oppressive and I think this was as a result of the high shelving. The toilet facility was in very good condition, and most staff seemed to be employed with the delivery, but those I spoke to were helpful and one was most apologetic that there was no air on the forecourt and directed me to a nearby garage. Of the five checkouts available only one was staffed, so service was rather slow – surely not part of the Sainsbury Local/Shell formula!

In comparison the Tesco Express needed – and had – all its tills in operation. A huge number of teenage students had descended on the store and a queue was being managed outside by the security guard. In addition to regular customers a small number of students were allowed entry so it should have been possible to shop in some comfort. But forget it! Staff were stocking shelves around the bakery/fresh produce area, completely blocking the aisles, and were moving for no one. It seemed to me that their only interest was in eyeing up the girl students! This 24-hour store offers a comprehensive c-store range and although no hot food-to-go offer, it did have a Coffee Nation hot drinks dispenser. Most of the instore action was happening to the left of the store entrance and the area to the right seemed under-shopped and possibly a target for theft. The shop curiously lacked interest for me and I was happy to be on my way. The member of staff who dealt with my transaction also lacked interest. He dumped my purchases on the counter, didn’t offer a bag or make any attempt to help, and after giving me my change, left his till and the customer behind me and went into the back office.

PROGNOSIS: The growth opportunity in forecourt c-stores is massive as more consumers appreciate the improving range and value of products and services available at all hours locally from more professional retailers. And in theory these two operations are addressing the opportunity – big-brand fuel retailers and big-brand food retailers acting in unison.

DIAGNOSIS: While I can understand the theory I am deeply puzzled by the execution. Ok, both shops have an excellent range of impulse lines well ranged and displayed, and to drive basket spend, an extensive range of ready meals, fresh produce and core groceries – just what you would expect from Sainsbury and Tesco meeting a mass market via small local supermarkets. What I cannot understand is the benefit to Shell and Esso. Both offer a range of fuels but that’s all – no car wash facility or other forecourt services. And if judged by the information on the Sainsbury and Tesco website they are doing nothing to promote their partnership with Shell and Esso.

PRESCRIPTION: In both sites customer satisfaction would be improved if the forecourt offered a comprehensive service, and if the grocer/petrol retailer partnership was promoted jointly. At a basic service level the Sainsbury offer needs supporting by a better ‘in stock’ position, and the Tesco offer by well-trained staff committed to customer service.

Sainsbury Local, Muswell Hill Star rating: 3.5

Tesco Express, Camden: 2.5