You know standards are high at the forecourt at Toomey’s Southend Motor Village when you arrive and spot the manager Mark Dance straightening a sign on one of the petrol pumps. It’s not so much that he’s adjusting the sign, more that he’s wearing suit trousers, a shirt, tie and waistcoat. But, once you visit the forecourt and the accompanying Spar store, you realise his outfit reflects the business’ incredibly high standards. Mark runs the site for owner, Michael Toomey, who has a second forecourt at Basildon. The Southend site, a busy transient one on Cherry Orchard Way a connecting road from Southend to Rochford opened in October 2008, with a 1,683sq m canopy, which at the time was the largest on any petrol filling station in Europe.

Nine years on, and it’s still an impressive site, boasting 51 nozzles of BP fuel, four sets of LPG which Mark says is a great supplement when fuel is expensive and a Soft Care Washtec car wash, which is very well used. Indeed Mark can’t understand other sites getting rid of their car washes. But that’s because his takes between £3,000-5,000 a month.

The site is also home to a 3,000sq ft Spar store with three Costa Express machines and a Subway inside.

The range in-store is excellent, with shelves all full and items faced up properly. And even the ’Amazing Deals’ signs everywhere don’t detract from the well-ordered displays.

The store gets chilled deliveries every day from Monday to Saturday as well as ambient on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Mark says: "Blakemore does a good job; availability is usually 95%-plus."

The store is trading 10% up year-on-year, which Mark puts down to those consistently high standards.

The customer base is predominantly male (80%) so best sellers reflect this. Soft drinks is the biggest sales category across drink-now and drink-later products. For those drink-later occasions, there’s a chiller packed with big bottles of fizz because Mark says many customers want to drink only a little later on, once they get home, and therefore are pleased the products are chilled and ready to drink.

The off licence section does well with ales in particular a popular recent development from Spar. The group also provides Toomeys with a good quality Prosecco at a reasonable price.

They run Spar promotions but are careful to pick and choose what will work best for the site. They don’t do a meal deal, for example, because Subway does one but it does provide customers with a choice of other sandwiches, lots of snacks and Bake & Bite pastries.

When it comes to new products, fidget spinners have been the biggest hit so far this year. "As a rule, confectionery is generally best for NPD. But the Lewis Hamilton energy drink at £1 is going well. We do like to try new products if they fit our customer base and particularly if they are backed by TV advertising," says Mark.

He adds that the only problem with having a 3,000sq ft shop, that’s well laid out with wide aisles, is getting customers to walk the whole area. He’s therefore careful where he places things and likes to move them around from time to time.

Mark is a big fan of big brands and openly admits he would like a bigger brand than Spar above the shop door. "Everyone’s into brands even children buy into brands at such a young age nowadays. It’s because of the consistent quality; the fact that people know what they’re getting. This store has always traded as a Spar and they are a really good supplier but the biggest problem is managing customer perception. Some stores are company-owned, some are independents which means store standards can vary."

One big brand that’s doing really well for the site is Subway, which has been installed for 18 months. "It was easy to find the space for the Subway as we used to do our own food-to-go in that space. Then, we were making margins of around 30%, but you can’t compete with the Subway brand and the volume sales that brings. Today we’re operating on a much higher margin. We took £20,000 through the Subway tills in our first month and now we’re up to £28,000. We’ve been told we’re the best-performing franchise in the area." Mark reckons you can’t go wrong with Subway as long as you’ve got the footfall. "Their business model works, you just need to be dedicated and really buy into it. Follow the procedures and it’s great."

There are three Costa Express machines which are in constant use plus a small tea offer. Point-of-sale material in this area tempts customers by telling them about the new range of Rendles cakes.

The store employs 32 staff 20 in the petrol filling station; 12 in Subway. The Subway created 10 extra jobs. Mark is keen on staff development. His deputy manager, Kurtis Back, was previously a supervisor, while a couple of the supervisors have come up through the ranks. "It’s good to promote from within as it means these people buy into the business," he explains. And the business invests in the staff as all of them on the shop side have personal alcohol licences and have been through food hygiene training.

Staff range in age from 18 to 55, which Mark says perfectly mirrors the customer base.

Running 24 hours can be a challenge but there is a job list for each shift (7am to 3pm; 3pm to 11pm; and 11pm to 7am): "It’s processes like this that keep the store looking as it does," explains Mark.

He admits he doesn’t know every customer by name but reckons he has up to 20 who he regularly talks to. "You have to connect with the customer that’s what they like," he says.

Mark loves rolling up his shirtsleeves and getting involved. "One minute I can be serving at the till, the next minute cutting up subs in the Subway, " he says.

He’s certainly riding high with those shop sales up 10% and fuel sales set to reach nearly 5ml this year. He says his biggest challenge is finding revenue streams that don’t involve fuel. However, it looks like a gift is on its way sales-wise with 500 houses being built close by and those who move in are in for a real treat when they discover their local forecourt as well as Mark and his team.

facts and figures

Toomey’s Spar by numbers
24-hour trading
1,683sq m canopy
51 fuel nozzles
on target to sell nearly 5ml of fuel this year
20% of fuel business from fuel cards
9,000 customers a week
5,600 Subway customers a month
shop sales up 10% year- on-year
30-plus parking spaces
Three Costa Express machines