== Getting a good rate ==

Have you ever looked at your rates bills and wondered just how the figures were arrived at? And whether you were being ripped off by the local authority?

In the past this column has pilloried the cold-calling rip-off ’ratings consultants’ - the cowboys who offer to do your business valuations and appeal on your behalf. It usually means that you get nowhere and they get paid for doing nothing.

Now I’ve had a tip from Steve Vaughan, who runs Handsbridge Service Station in Chester, about a company which offers a sort of antidote to this problem. GBK Exacta specialises in auditing rates bills and clawing back any over-payments. It will work with everyone, from an individual retailer to conglomerates. Using software to analyse past bills it can calculate whether you have been over-charged and get the money back plus compounded interest. It can do this for bills going back as far as 1990.

Jonathan Cahill, sales and marketing director for Exacta, says: "We have recovered hundreds of thousands of pounds. We have worked with many major UK food retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda as well as with Total UK and Chevron Global.But we will also work with individual retailers and we do not charge a fee if we don’t get a result. If we do get a result then the fee for an independent would be around 35% but then they are getting something back that they never knew was there in the first place."

Steve, who has been happy with his results, says: "Running a forecourt is not just about selling products for a margin. If you can save on your utilities, your phone bills and your rates then it all adds to your profitability."

Have a look at the website (www.exacta.co.uk) or give the company a ring on 01244 505700.

== What a washout ==

There seems to be an ongoing debate about whether the car wash will bring in greater profits for less effort rather than using the space to extend the store. Steve Vaughn, mentioned in the story above, is about to pull out his car wash to take his store from 900sq ft to 2,200sq ft. His rollover car wash currently turns over around £25,000 a year. "I think the square footage will be more useful in the store," he has concluded.

Another retailer who contacted me recently thinks the opposite (although if he had the money he would extend the store as well). My caller says the car wash is absolutely necessary but he feels somewhat blighted which is why I’m not naming him). He’d had a very acrimonious relationship with his previous jet wash supplier owing to constant breakdowns so he bit the bullet and spent £14,000 with a new supplier on two new machines and couldn’t believe it when they started to fail as well. He discovered, when he went to add the salt tablets to the water softener, that there was no water softener. "I specified many things," he says, "but I’m told it’s an optional extra. When you buy a car you don’t specify a passenger seat. In 20 years I thought I’d covered all the angles."

The equipment was produced in Cornwall where you don’t need water softeners; however you would expect an astute sales person to note where the machine is going and suggest this ’optional extra’. I don’t think the retailer should be kicking himself for not noticing what was missing. I’m sure there must be others out there who will take this as a good tip.

Most galling though is the customer reaction. Having gone through a year of having his previous machines packing up every weekend and the locals’ wearied response, now they are taking advantage. "At busy times, when they complain, you can’t tell whether the jet wash hasn’t worked properly or not and you just have to give them their money back," says my caller.

== Ages and wages ==

It’s a busy month October, legislation-wise. I suppose it’s a good thing that the government only brings in its new laws twice a year, split between April 1 and October 1. Here’s a brief rundown on the most important new legislation:

l October 1 - you can no longer legally sell tobacco to anyone under the age of 18.

l October 1 - the adult minimum wage increases to £5.52.

l October 1 - holiday entitlement increases to 24 days.

I doubt that many forecourt operators sell knives, but the age restriction for those lines too goes up to 18. In one sense it should make it easier for retailers if most age restrictions are the same, ie 18 years. Trading standards tell me that the best practice is ’Challenge 21’. If in any doubt, ID them. And keep a refusals book, even though it is a pain.

The lead officer for age-restricted sales at the Trading Standards Institute, to whom I spoke before writing this, had just done a ’work experience’ day in a c-store. It was an eye-opener and she said she would be discussing with colleagues ways to make the refusals system quicker and easier for staff.