It’s the first anniversary of my stealthcheck reports so my editor suggested I re-visit one of the worst and one of the best sites of the past year to review any changes.
STAR RATING: 1.5
One of the worst and certainly the most disappointing visits was to the Alldays-branded but Co-op supplied/Total site at Eastleigh in Hampshire (Forecourt Trader, June 2004). The original visit was disappointing because here were two of the major players in the c-store and fuel retailing sectors presenting a well-below standard store. I even thought it might well be a terminal case, but felt that with the considerable retail expertise and financial might at the disposal of Co-op and Total they could develop a site to be proud of and one that could make considerable profit. Because, despite the appalling offer to the consumer, the site appeared to be achieving a fair volume of trade. But what of the potential?
So it was with some anticipation that I approached the site and wow what a surprise... nothing had changed! Last year I remember feeling depressed by my visit – depressed at lost opportunities and poor standards. This year the feeling was almost of anger that the Co-op and Total could be so, well, cynical with their consumer offer at this site. It’s a large site that desperately needs some urgent attention.
FORECOURT: No change from my last report! It still looks shabby and now has a clear ‘tidemark’ on the canopy supports where the cleaner could not reach higher. Three nozzles were out of action and only one of the four dispensers offered any paper towels or plastic gloves. The whole site was littered with discarded paper, food wrappers and bottles, and the area in front of the cash machine I thought could be a health hazard. Trash was scattered everywhere including quite a lot of broken glass.
SHOP: The entrance to the shop was dirty. Not grimy, messy, well used, but dirty and a complete turn-off in terms of shopping a c-store. Shop fresh – forget it! The air conditioning had been fixed but the store fixtures/floors etc remained dirty. The floors were old but not properly swept or cleaned (in front of the wine chiller – still with its header missing and the light tube and electrics showing – there was a pile of dust and dirt. OK, partly swept up but not cleared away). And fronts of cabinets grimy to the point of being horrid.
The product offering was still rather limited in fresh foods and food-to-go but including a range of Co-op promotions. During my visit (1.45pm) the shop was busy, but only one till was working and I was sixth in line. My fuel transaction was OK but I challenged the checkout operator (who was certainly not interested in customer care) when she tried to charge me 45p for a product that was clearly marked 41p at the shelf edge.
PROGNOSIS: This is a terrible store and forecourt and a shocking testament to Co-op and Total, and I wonder just how long their customers will put up with it. They certainly deserve better. The refusal to attempt any perceptible improvements in the past year mean the site’s rating has dropped to one and a half stars.
DIAGNOSIS: I suspect that despite the state of the c-store and forecourt this site achieves a considerable turnover and is probably making money. But, surely that does not excuse the poor operation. In fact it should motivate the operators to want to achieve more. It’s 11 months since my last visit and clearly no major investment in the site during that time, but I just do not understand why neither the Co-op or Total have not tried to better manage what they have.
PRESCRIPTION: Go back to basics – be good retailers. At least send in a ‘hit squad’ to clean the place up and motivate the staff to keep it that way.
STAR RATING: 4
One of the best sites was Parkfoot Garage in West Malling, Kent. The Spar/BP operation was good then (Forecourt Trader, August 2004) and it is good now. It is a well-signed busy site with a new car wash centre that was being well promoted.
FORECOURT: As during my last visit, the pumps were in constant use but were clean, and it was gratifying to note that the car parking area had been marked with designated parking spaces. I was not convinced last year that WIGIG (when it’s gone it’s gone) promotions are truly effective but noticed that each pump was still offering a number of non-food lines. Perhaps they work but I continue to wonder if better results (more turnover and profit) would be achieved if say food-to-go and local produce offers were so aggressively promoted at the pumps.
SHOP: Still a great store clearly well managed and a credit to both the staff and Spar. Most categories are offered, including an excellent alcohol section. The produce section is quite small and it was unfortunate that a special offer pack of tomatoes included some mouldy ones. And, what, no bananas? During my last visit I questioned why bananas were being displayed on top of the produce cabinet (along with a display of folding chairs), but to discontinue them – if that’s the case – seems rather drastic. Surely it must be possible to find a display device that allows bananas to be sold.
The toilet was OK but the notice stating that it was regularly checked was torn. Also the (Total-branded) cleaning rota notice on the rear of the door had not been completed. To avoid any confusing messages this notice should be removed. As should the wobbler promoting Easter eggs. Easter had long gone and so had the eggs, but an oversight in good housing had allowed the pos to remain in place. The staff were helpful and efficient; it was a pleasure to shop there.
PROGNOSIS: The increasing pace of change in all aspects of our lives and particularly retailing shows no sign of reversing. So forecasting the future is a challenge but I feel that this store together with its chosen partners Spar and BP will continue to prosper because they appear to understand and are trying to meet shoppers needs.
DIAGNOSIS>: Many in the trade are setting their sights on our sector and standards are improving. The shopper is becoming yet more demanding, so even good stores must constantly be striving to develop their offerings and reassess their competitive position.
PRESCRIPTION: Consumer expectation will continue to be set by multiple operators and ‘retail standards’ will play a big part in their reason to shop at a particular store. So continue to be aware of the competition and practice ‘management by walkabout’ – seeing your store as your customers do. Continue to strive to maintain and increase your retail offer.
All in all, most sites were good last year, offering shopping and fuel services that were acceptable. Some were excellent, and just a few very poor. Credit to most site owners and their chosen c-store and fuel trading partners who seem committed to providing consistent service and value.
And that’s the challenge – consistent service and value. My mantra of the year seems to have been ‘retail is detail’. Perhaps that means that some managers should spend less time ‘managing’ and more time ‘doing’. By doing I mean shopping their own store, working with staff and talking to shoppers to further understand, and to satisfy, their needs better.
Staff are key, but generally my reports were negative about staff. I am well aware that recruitment is not easy and many sites I visited were advertising staff vacancies, but there needs to be more focus on selection and training – particularly skills and pride in customer care. During the year I also seem to have encountered more than my fair share of poor toilets. It’s important for forecourts to provide this service but don’t then insult the user by not keeping them clean.
Fresh has improved but there is still some way to go.
So, what of the future? I remain hugely optimistic about c-store trading and the forecourt sector. It is generally healthy and will be driven forward by entrepreneurial operators, many in partnership with wholesalers who understand forecourt trading and are dedicated to driving the forecourt c-store forward. I am certain that proactive owners offering attractive and efficient forecourt c-stores will be rewarded with sales growth and profit improvement. I look forward to visiting such stores.