Jeremy Symonds, former boss of the Smile c-store group, which was sold last year to Martin McColl, is back. He has started a business - Symonds Forecourts - and has six sites all with c-stores, three trading as Simply Fresh and three as Country Market.
FORECOURTS: Bedminster, Bristol (near Temple Meads station) - this is a new Shell-branded forecourt and Simply Fresh shop. The 24-hour site is tight on space but access to the four islands of pumps is fine. All the equipment is new and V Power Performance fuels are well promoted. The pole prices looked expensive but in line with other Bristol city sites.
Air and water and customer parking is available but no car wash/jet wash facility.
Shop-front services included an ATM, newspapers and winter fuels.
Bruton, Somerset - on the A539, to the west of Bruton, this is an established Texaco site with a store recently rebranded as Bruton Country Market.
The site is clearly signed with a pole and access to the pumps is fine. A limited number of designated parking spaces results in some drivers almost abandoning their vehicles around the entrance to the site. There is a jet wash and at the entrance side of the shop, an ATM and Calor Gas service. Newspapers, flowers and solid fuels are also available.
SHOPS: Bristol - as it was branded ’Simply Fresh...every day’, I entered the smallish shop with an expectation of an innovative range of fresh foods. But no. To my left there was a range of soft drinks, to my right a display of snacks and confectionery.
To the rear of the shop is a Bake & Bite and Simply Coffee offer. There is a range of basic sandwiches/savoury snacks, dairy and a very restricted range of package groceries. There were a few promotions.
There are no customer toilets and the staff were uncommunicative. So, all in all, a standard forecourt c-store that did not deliver the promise of its branding.
Bruton - again the store fascia ’Country Market’ had raised some expectations - of lots of fresh products. Expectations were heightened by external signs promoting Wyke Farms cheese and the Jon Thomas butchery offering of meat from local farms.
The tills were on the left as I entered the large-ish shop, but they were protected by a significant case display of large containers of screenwash.
Turning right I saw a large area of fresh produce displayed in wicker baskets. On inspection most products were well past their best.
The store had a wide range of packaged grocery products and a large off licence section - all with some bulk displays of special offers. It had a bake-off and Slush Puppie offering, but not a hot drink machine.
It looked as if in the past the butchery section had been a serve-over counter but on the day of my visit (Sunday) all the packaged fresh meat, pies and ready meals were on display in a large refrigerated cabinet.
A range of locally produced products - bakery, milk, cheese - was available. A pork pie and apricot & almond tart that I tried were pleasant but certainly not outstanding.
Despite its size the store does not have customer toilet facilities. The member of staff who served me was, I assume, new. Although friendly and helpful, he could not answer some of my questions but was supported by another member of the store team.
The store did not meet my expectations of a ’country market’ and I was left a little bemused by a confusion of branding messages - eg ’Bruton Country Market’, but there were some Smile official notices behind the counter, a Keystore carrier bag for my purchases and a number of Nisa-Today’s products.
PROGNOSIS: The general outlook for retailing remains gloomy with some retailers suffering. But not every sector is experiencing the same degree of pain - many forecourts and food retailers are thriving.
Consumers still require to fuel their vehicles and to eat. It may be argued that in an economic downturn food retailers benefit as people eat out less.
What a testing time for Symonds Forecourts to enter the market!
Even more important therefore for retailers to differentiate their offerings and the concept of Simply Fresh and Country Markets seems to be in touch with current consumer aspirations.
DIAGNOSIS: It can be argued that a powerful, attractive, established brand with heritage is vital in the current trading environment. Symonds Forecourts has such brands - and thus corporate images - in its partnerships with Shell and Texaco. But was there no such consumer established shop brand available to meet the demands of this new type of business?
Given that many symbol group brands are available and many are well known and trusted by the consumer, it is a brave decision by Symonds Forecourts to choose two new store images.
PRESCRIPTION: The Bristol Simply Fresh store appears to be a well-run basic c-store. The fascia design is good, but the name - Simply Fresh...each day - raised expectations that the store failed to deliver.
The much-visited historic town of Bruton is an ideal location for the development of a Country Market concept. I liked the colour and design of the fascia but felt let down by the execution of the offer in store.
The produce section was just very poor and the supply and management of this important section needed urgent attention. Locally produced products -some organic - were being stocked but there was not enough to justify the Country Market title. The Taste of the West website indicates that there are many more local food products that could be stocked.
As is often said, "retail is detail" and I would recommend that the store managers take a slow walk around the store to correct those detailed elements of retailing that make all the difference to consumers’ perception of a store.