When Shan Sandanarajah bought Woodham Services in Newton Aycliffe in County Durham in 2009, he was using Booker and thought the 450sq ft store was too small to become affiliated to a symbol. However, he was persuaded to join one of the other groups in 2010, but it didn’t go well for him.
He says fees eroded his margins so initial gains were lost and he was back where he started. After this experience, he decided to give Booker’s Premier a go and he’s got nothing but praise for them.
"I get tremendous support from Premier and they don’t charge for a thing everything is free. I’m very, very satisfied with them," he says.
Shan is doing particularly well with the Euroshopper range: "We stock all their groceries and drinks and our sales are through the roof.
"We have a Sainsbury’s Local adjoining our car park and a Tesco Express just down the road, but we really give them a good fight. We have customers coming in with a Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s bag in one hand, filling up with our stock with the other. And these are people who come in and regularly buy from us."
Shan buys the vast majority of his stock from Booker. The only exclusions are car care which they don’t stock and bread and milk.
"Everything is easy with Booker. Ordering is simple. I have a scanner that fits in my pocket. I just walk around the store, scan items in, plug it into my computer, the order goes over to Booker and I get the goods."
Shan realises that the Premier brand is less well known than the other symbol group he traded with, but says that’s not been a problem.
"My customers are looking for value and I can provide that. We have lots of price-marked items and they really appeal to my customers."
The forecourt is in a village but is surrounded by housing estates. Fuel sales are steady Shan tries to be competitive and is currently selling at 3ppl above the supermarkets. "We do 40,000 litres a week; my customers are loyal and understand there is nothing I can do about the fuel prices."
The site has Harvest brand fuel. "We switched from Total about three years ago there was a lot of stuff in the media about Total pulling out of the UK so my customers understood why we had to change. Most of the major oil companies approached us but we went with Harvest, who have been great they really care about their customers."
Despite being a Premier customer with a weekly delivery, Shan can be found down his local Booker depot (seven miles away) on most days.
"We’re such a small shop and we don’t have any storage space so everything we stock is out on the shelves.
"It’s great having the depot down the road as I can just pop down and pick anything I need up between deliveries. I enjoy my visits to the depot the staff are very nice and it’s good to see the special offers."
Mahomed Adam is so happy with Nisa that he recently persuaded his friend to sign up. Mahomed has three forecourts in West Yorkshire, all with Nisa branded convenience stores.
"It’s such a competitive marketplace that you need to have a strong brand with strong offers," he says.
"The range and the offers are the main reasons we are with Nisa. The deals are really strong and allow us to compete with the big supermarkets, the likes of Asda." Offers change every three weeks and are highlighted throughout the stores with point of sale and signage.
"As well as the offers, Nisa listens to us retailers and is always very helpful," says Mahomed. "I can always get hold of my rep and even if he’s in a meeting he will always call me back."
Mahomed is tied into BP for his fuel at the moment but says when his contract comes to an end he would consider the Nisa fuel deal. "It’s early days for that but I am keeping a close eye on how it’s going," he says.
Since joining Spar last October, retailer James Peake from Lutterworth Ford in Leicestershire, says he has enjoyed increased trading support as well as a 10% increase in shop turnover.
With the help of the Blakemore Trade Partners team, the store has added Costa Coffee and Country Choice hot food and has undergone a small refit incorporating new fixtures and fittings, imagery and a full promotional programme.
James says: "I’ve been really impressed with the support I’ve received from everyone at Blakemore they are so much more professional and offer me a lot more assistance than my previous group. The sales team has provided invaluable assistance with merchandising and deliveries, helping to ensure that stock always arrives on time. It really is like a breath of fresh air. I’ve also been offered some excellent store layout advice and help with implementing new gondolas, fixtures and fittings."
James is mindful of all his customers and realises that while many will take the opportunity to do a bit of shopping while they are on the site, there are others who just want to fill up their cars and go.
"We’ve now got a fast lane with outside payment terminals so business users who are in a hurry can just fill up and go. We have some big spenders on the forecourt and we didn’t want to put them off. There is a bit of a trade-off by losing the impulse purchase of say a Mars bar, but we felt this was the right thing to do."
It’s often the little things that can make a huge difference in a business partnership and one thing James is particularly happy with is the way deliveries are handled on the forecourt.
He explains: "With our previous supplier, they used a lot of agency drivers who would see the shop door and then park as close to it as possible, with no regard for the customers driving on and off the site. With Spar, they actually worked out a plan of where their trucks should park and they’ve stuck to it so it’s much better. It’s just that much more professional."
Sometimes independents are worried about signing up to a symbol group for fear of losing total control of their business, but James says Spar has been nothing but accommodating and it’s been a real partnership approach. "They’ve done everything I asked. They are not demanding at all, just very professional."
James’ forecourt store is attached to a main Ford dealership, and he finds that both corporate brands sit well together. "I’ve definitely benefited from the Spar fascia. The well-known brand name has really helped to communicate to customers the great value and range on offer at the store."
James is switching fuel brand later this year from Total to Texaco. "I believe Texaco is a strong brand plus there are no other Texaco sites nearby," he says. "And with Ford, Spar and Texaco the site will look really impressive."
Darren Briggs has two forecourts in Pembrokeshire, both with Costcutter stores. When he took on the sites, one of the stores was trading under Total’s Bonjour fascia and the other was under another symbol fascia.
Since the switch over one of his store’s sales have nearly doubled, while the other’s is up by around 50%.
Darren explains why he picked Costcutter: "I liked the fascia so I met up with them and was immediately impressed with their management and their field staff." Three years on, and he’s still impressed: "I like the promotions, the marketing and the support. Being part of Costcutter is very much like being part of a family. I know I can speak to anyone there at any moment in time; I can pick up the phone and know they’ll be there. Also I like the fact that if they say they will do something, they’ll always do it."
Darren is also extremely happy with the new supply deal with Palmer & Harvey. "With Buyco I worked out I was immediately saving 3.4% across the board compared to what I was previously paying. The new supply deal is phenomenal; it’s a no-brainer. There’s no annual fee, there’s better distribution and a better range. In fact I’m just getting the new independents range in at the moment and I think it will be a real game changer for the business."
He says his customers really like the Costcutter brand. "They like the fact that we have regular promotions every three weeks and these lines always sell well."
As good as it gets
Peregrine Retail currently has three sites in the South West, all with Budgens stores and Shell fuel.
It’s opening a fourth site at Kingsclere in September, with a fifth due to open at Wellington in March next year both new sites will have Budgens stores too.
Operations director, Tom Orford, says Peregrine has been with Budgens since 2010. "I’ve got experience with Budgens because I worked for them for 10 years but the reason we trade with them and will continue to trade with them is because they’ve got a really good range of products across all departments.
"Their fresh is as good as it gets for a smaller convenience environment and it’s the same with their ambient range. They’ve always got something different plus they incorporate the local aspect.
"I think the brand sits well with fuel and the customers think it is excellent."
A flexible approach to business coupled with greater availability of price-marked packs were the reasons Thana Thanabalasingham of Hat Service Station & Post Office near Saltash chose Best One. Thana gets three deliveries a week but also likes to pop into his local Bestway depot, which is just a 10-minute drive from the store. He says Bestway handles his deliveries very well and he has no complaints.
"Being with Best One is very convenient as they are really flexible. There are no fees to pay and they give me credit. In addition the rep comes in regularly and is always very helpful."
The site is in a village but gets a lot of passing trade from people on the way to the beach. The store has a post office, which is very well used.
Thana is in the throes of getting a combi counter which means the post office will be open for as long as the shop is, namely from 7am to 9pm, making it really convenient for his customers.
Global but local
Euro Garages is one forecourt group that’s got partnering with global brand names down to an art. And it’s turning the typical visit to a forecourt on its head. The company’s commercial director, Ilyas Munshi, explains: "We’re all about business people meeting at one of our Starbucks for a coffee, taking advantage of the free wifi then, after the meeting, perhaps purchasing fuel or using our shop versus the stereotypical image of the forecourt where people only come in when their fuel gauge is on empty. We want people to come to us as a destination and that’s what they are doing. So as well as business people, we have mothers picking up their kids from school who come to our sites to give their kids their tea at Subway or Greggs. We’re all about having motorway service station services on a main road."
Ilyas says their aim is also to deliver global brands at the local level: "Starbucks is known globally but probably wouldn’t open a store in some of our locations, which is where we come in, delivering that brand to locals.
"People ask us why we don’t have our own-brand fuel or our own brand coffee but we prefer to work with global partners who are experts in their respective areas."
Euro Garages has 180 sites and on those it has 56 Subway outlets, 51 Starbucks, eight Greggs (but will have 15 by the end of the year) and five Burger Kings. It is also the only forecourt to offer Starbucks on-the-go coffee. Its fuel brands are BP, Esso and Shell. Then there are the stores which trade under the Spar brand.
Ilyas says a significant proportion of customers almost 76% both fill up with fuel and purchase non-fuel items. "This number is increasing all the time as consumers want to access our partner brand products and services. These customers are attracted and impressed by the quality and range of the partner brands, the location of our sites and the convenience all of which are core delivery aspects. As we acquire and open more Euro Garages sites across the UK, we expect to continue to target and attract non-fuel shoppers as well as those who simply want to pick up groceries, fresh items and access fast food and coffees."
Guy Warner owns and operates a Subway store within his forecourt outlet in Gloucester. Since opening it last September, he says he’s seen tremendous success with the brand.
"The popularity of the Subway brand has been great for driving new customers through the door. When researching franchise options it was clear there was demand for a Subway store in the local area, which presented an excellent opportunity for investing. The strength of the brand complements our existing services and, as a result, our customer count has increased by almost 25%.
"Being a Subway franchisee allows you to sell superb products that are known and loved around the world. It also gives us the opportunity to provide our customers with an alternative to the pre-packed sandwich. All our subs are freshly prepared and made to order and our menu includes healthier options. This has most certainly been a footfall driver and profit centre for the business."
Both Nisa and Spar are reporting that their own-brand fuel concepts are being well received.
Nisa currently has six retailers fully branded, with more in the pipeline. Nisa’s format and development director, Raj Krishan, says all the forecourt retailers they’ve signed up so far have enjoyed double-digit fuel growth since joining. On top of that they have significantly increased their profitability.
Meanwhile, Spar says its first site in its own-brand fuel trial B&M Harland of Pickering in North Yorkshire saw fuel volume increase by 32% and shop sales by 20%. The symbol group is set to open its first Scottish Spar fuel site soon in Maybole, Ayrshire.
Krishan says his team is in talks with some 50 forecourt retailers about the new branding while Spar says it has 100 more sites in the pipeline.