GENERAL APPEARANCE: I felt it high time I visited a Shop’N Drive site so ’stuck a pin’ in the Rontec website Petrol Station Finder and came up with Milton Road, Southsea.

FORECOURT: My target is well identified by an Esso-branded pole and canopy. The forecourt is quite a good size and seems to offer a range of services.

Access to the four islands of pumps is easy and all were clean and in good working order. Pump prices were competitive, but 1ppl dearer than Asda and Shell (about a quarter of a mile away).

My target provides a number of forecourt services Calor and patio gas, air, water, vacuum (two), jet wash (two) and a Wash’N Drive car wash. A clear menu of prices for the car wash is displayed and for the jet wash, potential users are met with a ’4 minutes for £1’ offer.

In front of the shop are a variety of customer offers and services including a night pay window (the site is open from 7am to 11pm daily), an outside customer toilet (in good condition but probably needs a new hand dryer), an ATM (free to use), display of Evian water, newspapers and summer fuels.

Around the site are posters promoting various shop offers Costa Express, a meal deal, milk and Hovis, coffee plus a croissant etc. I decided to go for the coffee and croissant package.

SHOP: The Shop’N Drive fascia is new this site only converted a few months ago. The corporate design and colours are very stylish and the total effect is further enhanced by a bright illuminated strip along the bottom of the fascia which would look good at night.

The shop interior is also stylish.

A large Costa Express unit takes up a lot of the wall space to the left of the entrance. Under the Costa Express header are three separate sections the centre unit is the self-serve hot drinks. The section to the left offers sweet and hot savoury products and to the right, cold drinks and Eat Me sandwiches. It’s a clever merchandising unit displaying a range of products and brands that all seem to be endorsed by Costa. A great opportunity to up-sell. My coffee was up to the expected Costa standard but regrettably no croissant sold out! No up-sell achievement there, then.

Along the rear walls, a run of chillers holds a range of products dairy to off licence. The milk and Hovis for £2 offer was well advertised but the bread display near the dairy cabinet had no Hovis!

Ranging is limited to top sellers, but a number of categories are missing such as flowers and produce. Typically convenience stores display HBA and OTC lines behind the tills, but here they are on open display on the shelving but right in sight of assistants at the tills. The assistant who dealt with my transaction was friendly and efficient.

PROGNOSIS: Rontec Investments, the second largest enterprise in the Forecourt Trader Top 50 Indies, operates over 200 forecourts across England and Wales. The Shop’N Drive concept was launched last year and is being progressively introduced across its estate.

Rontec seems to develop high-specification forecourts and shops everything geared to efficient operations and consumer satisfaction. It has partnered with big national brands Esso fuel and Costa coffee. Shops that have a higher grocery demand trade under the Mace banner.

DIAGNOSIS: Demonstrating value and engaging with drivers are essential. Keeping a tight control of costs and providing promotions is clearly a strength of the multiples. But building a franchise with their local communities is more of a challenge.

PRESCRIPTION: Esso Shop’N Drive Southsea is an impressive operation and it has achieved a high score. Surely management controls should sort out the out-of-stock problems?

If I have a concern, it’s the store’s predictability the same Costa, soft drinks, confectionery, top-up lines that are available in so many convenience stores across the country. Progressive independents try to develop a point of difference many by stocking a range of local foods, supporting local activities and increasingly by use of social media. What an opportunity for Shop’N Drive to seize the power of social media and give individual units the chance to develop a new type of relationship with their customer base and local community.