Things are finally looking up…

When I first spoke to Hassan Mohammed a month ago, at peak Covid-19 pandemic, he told me: “Things are hard at the moment because while fuel sales have taken a nosedive, shop sales have gone up between 30-50% at both sites (Limes Service Station in Walkden, Salford and Howich Service Station in Bolton) and what we are struggling with is like everyone else sourcing products for the shopfloor. We are having to work too many hours at the moment. However, we are grateful that financially the sites are sustaining themselves.”

His opening hours had remained the same by putting people on shift when they needed to be. “Staff were initially scared because one member had the virus a few weeks ago but thankfully he has recovered but is still in isolation and not passed it onto anyone else. We did take medical advice from NHS if we should close and they said no, as long as other staff don’t start showing symptoms. We do have another staff member in isolation but are taking one day at a time.”

He had also taken security measures using plastic screens at both sites and having antibacterial spray and hand sanitisers and gloves for all staff.

In conclusion he said: “In terms of the support from the government, we are looking to save a considerable amount in rates and will have to wait for any grants to land in the bank account. In terms of clarity, safety or precautions I feel the government has let us down by not being precise and upfront.”

I caught up with Hassan again in mid May and he was still slogging away. “Everything’s going relatively well. I don’t think any of us expected the virus to have this amount of impact and for this long, with having no control over the future.”

Then a very interesting remark. “I have noticed that all wholesalers (symbol groups) have now stopped their usual promotional activities and this makes the market feel like it has gone back 20 years where shops were shops. I think we are just having to move and adapt very fast with what consumers want from us on a daily basis and then trying to source the products is the difficult part. Because what they want on a daily basis is changing rapidly. So first it was bread and milk, then eggs and meat and tinned food, then home baking. So we have to try and balance how much demand there will be and how much product we should order.”

 And there was a slow but sure rebuilding

In the last issue I reported that Laurence Haring had closed both his sites at Highbridge, Weston-super-Mare and Bath, for the sake of staff and family welfare. He re-opened them on May 4.

He says: “We ensured all our PPE and protocols were in place and had made-to-measure sneeze screens installed during this period. Staff safety was, and always will be, my priority.

“First week was very quiet, especially fuel wise. Date preservation was paramount and ordered accordingly, sort of easing ourselves back. Once we had our benchmark, it enabled us to look towards our second week back, factoring in the slight loosening of restrictions.

“Bear in mind, most went into lockdown with near full tanks, we knew that it would be a few weeks before we saw any real fuel sales. Highbridge has been our best site. Fuel sales up 31%/footfall 27% and shop up 17% on like-for-like from week one to week two.

“From mid-May, footfall and sales were noticeably better. Most importantly, we aren’t losing money.”

At the time of closing Laurence said that one retailer he knew had done exactly what the government was advising: speak to suppliers, come up with payment plans, liaise. But one fuel supplier refused to speak to him, then informed credit insurers that the retailer had lost their credit facility at another site.

“Additionally, with the debt being less than two weeks overdue, the supplier submitted paperwork to the insurer with interest and additional costs and threatening legal action.

“Credit insurers are already withdrawing facilities and so ultimately it’s going to fall back on the supplier as sites working on 7/14/21 days credit will now have to pay upfront.”

He also had words to say about suppliers who insisted sites stay open for maximum hours which resulted in them actually losing money. “I am sure this directive is being sent from somebody who is working from home to avoid catching the virus.”