Hello to you all, long time no speak! So there I was, when my phone rang. "It’s Merril, Forecourt Trader’s 25 years old and I wondered if you would contribute to our anniversary edition?" Twenty five years where has the time gone? Where has my hair gone, for that matter?!
Now there is a danger that when you look back younger people start getting a glazed look. To all of you I say sorry anniversaries are about nostalgia, and nostalgia is what you’re going to get.
Not being able to trust my memory, I thought I’d look through some of the old cuttings I had to remind myself of the changes.
September 1988 does Travellers Check work?
July 1989 total number of petrol stations is 20,000, of which oil company owned were 6,500.
October 1989 "Roll on the day when Switch and Connect rule the roost and we don’t have to bother accepting cheques at all."
February 1990 one million gallon sites now worth £1m. January 1991 hypers have 10% of the market. March 1992 has the shop sales bubble burst?
June 1997 who do these new people Paypoint think they are kidding? August 1997 when will the OFT remember that the ’F’ stands for FAIR trading?
September 2000 how can dealers survive on margins of 2ppl?
May 2004 "To survive we truly have to be retailers who happen to have the added advantage that we pull customers in because we sell petrol".
What I was reminded of by my trawl through the past was how many of the names of yesteryear had vanished: Look, Save, Plumptons, DC Cook, Circle K, Telegraph, Norfolk House. All had real influence over the market, only to disappear. Then there was the oiler’s own operations: Station Supreme, Star, Sealand, Prime, Petropolis, Dart, City Petroleum; every one of them stuffed full of ’experts’ who knew all the answers.
And where are Mobil, Burmah, Fina, Elf, Amoco, Rix, ICI? Plus all those schemes designed to ensure that site operators of company-owned sites didn’t earn too much: Shell Select, Paye/marijuana, Shell Share, Elf Optimate, BP Partnership, Quantum, Harmony.
So with hindsight was this all a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Arguing about how we divi up the cake without noticing how quickly it was shrinking.
To some extent it was, but considering that the hypers had 10% of the market in 1991, it is amazing that there is still an independent petrol market at all.
In most trades the hypers have wiped out virtually all the opposition. One of the first Asda sites opened near me in 1975 37 years later we still exist, albeit in a somewhat different guise. Some of the reasons for this have to be the power of the majors, some of it has to be the importance of location, and some of it has to be the resilience of your very good selves, the forecourt operators.
The recent ’disappointing’ Tesco results did create a little Schadenfreude, I have to admit. This shows us that no matter how dominant a company is, it nearly always ends up believing it is invincible. It believes it can ignore market trends or can increase net margins too much.
This all makes the continued influence that Gerald Ronson has on the petrol market even more remarkable. When I started out in 1972 he was leading the way with Four Square self service (and Green Shield Stamps!) 40 years later and he just can’t stop being involved, even still making his legendary Saturday morning site visits.
These days I spend my time running a hygiene and janitorial company. In six years, we’ve not had one visit from the fire brigade, Health & Safety, the Environmental Agency or any local authority busybody. Even allowing for the dangerous nature of petrol, I guess forecourts are just too easy a target for the jobsworths.
And so, to the next 25 years. With all best wishes Mike Rose.