I got an apposite email, in the week leading up to the petrol-price crisis that coloured much of September, querying ways to improve shop profits. Jayne Stokes writes: “We would like to take a business trip to look at ways we could supplement the petrol income. Where would you suggest would prove a fruitful trip from the point of view of innovative ideas and inspiration?”
A further exchange of emails reveals that Jayne and Jack Stokes run three petrol stations. Whereas two are short of space with the shop ‘offer’ already maximised, the third is on a large site in Thetford. The couple are on an Esso deal and have had a shop re-fit which is branded Mace Express. It has a new car wash and jet wash and they are doing pump-top promotions quite successfully. On the down side, fuel margin is now so small thanks to two hypers in close proximity. “The trip can be anywhere,” says Jayne, “but must be tax deductible and we genuinely are interested in looking at the way forward for the petrol retailer.”
For anyone looking for inspiration, loyalty prompts me to first recommend the International Forecourt & Fuel Equipment Show and the Convenience Retailing Show, held at the NEC Birmingham next 19-22 March). Moving abroad, NACS springs to mind. In the States, many c-stores are weird hybrids of dry-cleaning/food takeaway/gas stations, so they are big on new ideas. Since the ACS in this country always arranges a tour to coincide with NACS I looked up the venue only to discover that it was meant to be New Orleans. As we all know, Noo’Awlins sadly has been devastated, so I rang ACS to find out more. The venue and date for NACS has been switched to Las Vegas from 15-18 November. There may still be places because some retailers won’t have been able to reschedule.
All this aside, Croner, the small business bible for the self-employed, tells me that none of these trips can be tax deductible. “Preparation to do a trade is not a trading expense and is therefore not allowable,” said a very precise spokesman. I’d like to throw this to open forum. Most rules have a way round them. Anybody know one? And anybody know a good place to go for good, clean, trading inspiration?
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Also much in discussion lately has been whether or not to advertise your petrol prices on poles, especially as prices approach triple digits. But you do at least want to advertise the fact that you are there in the first place so spare a thought for Gill Marsh whose forecourt and shop on the A16/A158 Lincoln to Skegness/Grimsby to Peterborough crossroads have been rendered invisible by a newly-constructed bypass which opened recently. Lincolnshire county council had put up a big green sign with a little leg off it showing where the services are but it is lost in a forest of information. The site will also be literally obscured by a forest soon as they planted new trees.
Gill knew she could buy brown directional signs at £50 a pop but wanted to know if she was entitled to large green signs of her own to clue potential customers well in advance. It turned out that she was ‘entitled’ at a price. She could have two new white signs designed in-house by the council and costing £900 each for which she would have to pay half. She asked them to reconsider this cost in view of the services, such as public toilets, that she offers.
I discussed her situation with Mark Bradshaw of Garage Watch and although he thought the price quite high and that it sounded like a special case, added that he had never heard of a council offering to “go halves” before. Normally forecourts would have to bear the whole brunt of the cost. In the end Gill got four new signs, one on each of the new roads leading into the island and costing a total of £3,600 of which she paid half. Her takings, which were 50% down during the roadworks, have picked up a little but she has also been saddled with an increase in her rateable values from £5,900 to £12,250. She has appealed this and is in further discussion with her council as to whether it is better that she be categorised as a shop with a forecourt or a forecourt with a shop.
At the fag end of August Susan and Mike Phillips decided they had had enough when a large BMW drove off owing £74 on petrol. This, coupled with three disastrous bankruptcies among local businesses that ran accounts with them, had led them to consider packing the whole thing in. The site, Pye Corner Filling Station, at Newport, Gwent on the edge of the M4, which the couple run with their son David, has been in the family for 70 years. The Phillips know the police won’t help now but at least they have sanctioned the putting up of eight signs saying ‘Due to theft, payment is requested before fuel is dispensed’. They have also put up signs saying ‘No business cards’.
As every forecourt has learned to its cost, the chavs committing the drive-offs don’t always have mud deliberately slapped over their number plates or “I pinch petrol” tattooed on their foreheads.