GENERAL APPEARANCE: This site was easily located in the middle of the market town of Buckingham by the familiar Gulf logo.
FORECOURT: The forecourt is small with two basic pump islands under a canopy. I needed to refuel and was surprised to discover it was attended service. The service was prompt, friendly and efficient.
Fuel prices were competitive and there were no promotion cards on the pumps and I could see no other forecourt services on offer. Certainly there are no car wash facilities and, after enquiring, I was informed they do have an air and water service.
Vehicle service, repair and MOT testing services are available and a modern-looking workshop is situated to the rear of the site.
There is no designated parking area but plenty of space to park to use the shop.
The only up-front shop display was bags of compost supported by a faded window sign. The shop window to the left of the entrance showed a number of posters for local services/events.
To the right of the entrance, a window displayed a bold poster stating ’We Sell Leaded 4 Star’.
The smart Gulf corporate blue signage around the site gives a good first impression. As does the fascia across the front of the shop.
SHOP: If I was unprepared for ’attended service’ at the pumps, that was nothing to my surprise on walking into the shop. In the past most forecourt shops offered not much more than some cans of oil, motor accessories plus a few ’sweeties and fags’. Of course, today the vast majority of forecourt shops are at the cutting edge of convenience store retailing offering a targeted service to their customers. But not here at the Swan Garage this Gulf Store seems firmly stuck in the past.
The rather poorly-lit shop does offer car accessories, a range of confectionery (missing some brand leaders) soft drinks, ice cream and cigarettes. There were a few packets of crisps (not the brand leaders). There is an upright cool cabinet that looked to contain a few pork pies, plus there were some greeting cards. But nothing tempted me so I paid for my fuel and left.
PROGNOSIS: Most retailers independent as well as multiple and their oil company and wholesale partners, have the same objectives. To provide the best possible forecourt and shop services to customers and in this way to grow turnover and profitability.
The Gulf Oil website, while claiming to be the UK’s fastest-growing forecourt brand, seems to promise similar partnership support. There was no shop evidence of that support and none of a food wholesaler. From the briefest of ’stealthchecks’ it seems to me that the Swan Garage enterprise is greatly reliant on income from vehicle servicing, limited fuel and very limited shop sales. Not a great outlook for the future?
DIAGNOSIS: W Ganderton & Son, the owners of Swan Garage, have a good website. It says that the business was started in 1849 and that now the sixth generation of the family is involved. It adds that as the owner and his brother both have children "it looks as if the business is set to continue".
I greatly admire independent family businesses with ambition, and fervently hope that they continue and prosper. Looking to the future for Swan Garage, I am sure its future would be more certain with a modernised forecourt and shop.
PRESCRIPTION: Gulf Oil does not have any company-owned retail operations and claims a commitment to working together with dealers to help with the future of its sites. Many food wholesalers make similar claims.
I am certain that the Ganderton family must have considered the forecourt and shop operation on many occasions but in light of the current challenging times perhaps it’s time for them to think again.
The other forecourt businesses at either end of Buckingham are good but they are typical corporate disciplined anonymous operations. They do not have the Swan Garage heritage or connection with the community of Buckingham that an independent family store can develop. A joint meeting between the owners, Gulf Oil and their wholesaler should be able to come up with a development strategy that will help Swan Garage to continue in the years to come.