Filling up your car with fuel has got to be one of the dullest chores going. Distractions are there with pump-top offers, advertising on pump handles and sometimes, if you’re lucky, digital screens with messaging, but that’s about it. However, across the pond in North-east Ohio, drivers will soon be able to fill their cars while watching music videos thanks to the opening of the first ever Hard Rock-branded service station which is scheduled for September. Called the Rockstop Gas & Wash, it will feature a 3,500sq ft retail/car wash building and six double pumps with 12 nozzles. The pumps feature Hard Rock-style lighting effects and LED TVs for music videos and commercials. The forecourt will be adjacent to a Hard Rock casino aka Rocksino. It’s not so much a brand alliance but more of a brand extension but it illustrates the power of branding and how this can be harnessed in the forecourt arena.

Over here, it seems more and more brands are queuing up to gain a presence at motorway service areas and at forecourts in general.

The Kay Group, for example, has announced a new partnership with WH Smith at its new-to-industry Crewe Gateway site. Its 5,000sq ft shop building incorporates the group’s existing retailing partners, Spar and Greggs, along with the new venture with WH Smith, which is a first for a main-road petrol filling station.

But probably the biggest trailblazer when it comes to links with big brands is Euro Garages, which recently opened two new-to-industry sites in Lancashire, one of which features its first drive-thru KFC restaurant and both feature Sainsbury’s Locals.

The drive-thru restaurant is part of a £3.5m development at Mill Farm in Wesham, which comprises a BP service station, and also features Euro Garages’ 100th Greggs store and its seventh Sainsbury’s Local.

Euro Garages’ brand manager, Iain Fisher, is apparently working closely with KFC UK & Ireland to identify and explore new development opportunities. He says: "We are planning to open a further 30-plus KFC restaurants across the UK by 2020."

The company’s second new service station, at Buckshaw Village, in Chorley, comprises a Starbucks Drive-Thru, a 24-hour Sainsbury’s, a Greggs, Subway and a BP fuel stop.

It’s important to note that Euro Garages is the first company Sainsbury’s has allowed to operate a Sainsbury’s Local store. However, it’s not the only operator to have found success trading with the major grocery multiples. Rontec has announced that it is extending its partnership with Morrisons with plans for a further 40 c-stores across its sites. And MRH has just signed an agreement with the Co-op to pilot a new franchise convenience store at seven of its sites. The first of the 1,000-1,500sq ft stores has already opened in Eastcote in north-west London. The next one will open later this month and the other five will be completed by August.

The pilot is part of MRH’s wider strategy to invest in its service stations and to develop partnerships, which increase the choice for customers visiting its sites. Currently, MRH also has partnerships with Spar, Costa Coffee, Subway and Greggs.

MRH chief executive Karen Dickens says: "We look forward to working with the Co-op team as we pilot this model with them, and explore further ways we can ensure our customers time and again choose to visit MRH for their fuel and convenience needs."

Jo Whitfield, retail chief executive, Co-op, says: "This is an exciting opportunity for the Co-op to expand its presence further in the convenience sector, which is one of the fastest-growing areas in UK grocery.  This will enable us to test the franchise model and potentially pave the way for further expansion to move the Co-op brand and our own-brand food into new communities."

Symbol route

For most forecourts, their first brand alliance comes from a link to a sy mbol group. Over recent years all the groups seem to have been investing in the booming forecourt sector, whether that’s in a service station team or shop layouts and ranges that better suit a forecourt site. At present, it’s Spar that’s riding high in forecourts with its recent announcement that it is the largest forecourt retailer by site numbers, with 1,200 of its stores at service stations.

Top 50 Indies which have Spar stores include: MRH; Euro Garages which has rebranded many of the shops on the Shell sites it acquired with Spar; Rontec; HKS; The Kay Group; Valli Forecourts; Hills Group; Chartman Group; and Simon Smith Group; and it also has partnerships with Roadchef and several oil companies.

Spar UK managing director, Debbie Robinson, says: "Forecourt retailing is very important to us. In the past five years we’ve worked hard at developing this side of the business.

"Petrol fuel retailers form an increasingly vital role in our strategy for growth. We have some of the biggest names in the forecourt industry working with us, as well as hundreds of successful independent retailers.

"For retailers, our forecourt offer has a great many benefits. Flexibility on the fuel offer and the support of a symbol group bringing a high-quality retail range, which are all compelling reasons to work with us."

Spar’s sales figures for 2016 rose by 8.5% to £2.84bn, thanks to new retailers joining the group, a fresh marketing approach and a strong focus on foodservice.

Robinson says Spar is now focusing on rolling out its Daily Deli foodservice offer to more forecourts and, at the same time, is looking at the service area, bakery and coffee solutions.

One dealer who is very happy to be with Spar is Nick Baker of NJB Services, who owns five Jet forecourts in the North East. He says: "When I was looking to develop my Abbeyside and Newton Park sites I needed to find a symbol partner that offered the range and quality to match the investment I was making at the sites.

"I felt Spar was the best symbol group I could do this with, and this was further strengthened by that fact that I was able to maintain Jet as my fuel brand thanks to the Jet and Spar alliance. The Jet/Spar dual branding concept is absolutely brilliant. Having the Spar brand on the forecourt tells my customers that we’re serious about our convenience offering. It’s a popular and trusted convenience brand, with really powerful promotions to attract and maintain customers. I’ve now partnered with Spar across all five of my sites and can’t fault them as a symbol group.

"As a dealer, I need to feel that my suppliers are on my side and that they won’t let me down. That’s very much the case with Spar and Jet."

Abbeyside, which has just reopened following a £1.3m knock-down-rebuild, is the first of Nick’s sites to have the full Jet/Spar dual branding and he says it looks great. "I’m using it as an opportunity to test the water to see whether dual branding would be a good solution for my other sites. I suspect it depends on the location and customer demographic of each site. That’s the beauty of the alliance between Spar and Jet there’s flexibility to choose which of the different retail and brand options work best for each forecourt."

Further north, in Scotland, John Sommerville made the decision to buy the site he had been operating for nearly 20 years and convert the store at Bathgate to Mace.

Located within a large residential area on a busy A-road and next door to a recently opened train station, serving Glasgow and Edinburgh, the site is in a prime location.

But to truly capitalise on that location, John knew he needed to make some changes so he invested £100,000 in converting the store to Mace, adding new shelving, refrigeration and till points and significantly boosting the food-to-go offering to better fit the needs of his shoppers.

And, as well as refreshing the store, John also refitted the whole forecourt to give it a modern look, including the installation of quicker pumps.

John’s fuel offer is now supported by a drive-through car wash, valeting service, newly opened jet wash offering five minute cleans for just £2 and a full array of car care products in the shop. In fact, the forecourt has become known as the ’go-to’ place for car care solutions.

Since relaunching as a Mace store and forecourt, sales have increased more than three-fold and footfall figures are continuing to grow.

John says: "As a forecourt, we recognised the need to offer more than just fuel, which has significantly impacted on our bottom line. While investing £100,000 is not a decision any retailer should take lightly, the guidance and support from Mace was invaluable.

"With a very successful Mace store in Glasgow, I knew the ’great value-for-money’ concept would fit well with the customer profile in Bathgate.

Also in Scotland, retailer Mahmood Saleem has been very pleased with his partnership with Nisa at Ardeer Services in Stevenston, Ayrshire.

"We joined Nisa as an independent member some six or seven years ago and added their fascia last year.

"I’m very pleased with them; I have no complaints. I initially chose them because they had better deals than the other groups and also had a very good chilled range."

Mahmood’s shop has changed dramatically since he’s been with Nisa moving from a small 700sq ft store to a modern 2,700sq ft one. "Nisa helped with everything from the design and the start of the building right through to the merchandising. They even helped me stock the shelves."

He wants to name-check Douglas and Graham for their particular hard work as well as Kevin for help and advice re the chilled range: "I lost count of how many times Kevin drove up from Manchester to help us," he says.

The changes have paid off in spades with fuel volume up between 30-40% and shop sales up around 50%: "My customers are very aware of the Nisa brand and what that means. For them it means having promotions that match those of the supermarkets and it’s only by being with Nisa that we can do that."

Good locations lead to great sales at Greggs

Business is booming at Greggs with the bakery/food-to-go firm reporting that its sales were up by 7.5% for the first 19 weeks of this year.
In this period, the company completed 87 shop refurbishments and opened 42 new stores including 20 franchised units in transport locations such as forecourts. As of May 13, it had 1,615 company-managed shops and 177 franchised units.
In its trading update, Greggs said its £2 breakfast offer was doing particularly well and it has invested further in capacity to meet growing demand.
Another product winner is its Balanced Choice range, which has recently benefited from the addition of new cold-pressed drinks and freshly prepared salads and wraps with flavours such as Coconut, Lime & Chilli Chicken..

Best-one is the best one

A shopper satisfaction survey of convenience stores by Which? rated Best-one as the best symbol group, and ranked it third overall behind M&S Simply Food and Little Waitrose. Shoppers were asked how satisfied they were with the stores they used for top-up shopping and whether they would recommend them to a friend.
M&S Simply Food was the clear number one, but Waitrose in second place was only 2% ahead of Best-one, and behind it were Sainsbury’s Local, Tesco Express and all the other symbol groups
James Hall, symbol development director at Bestway Wholesale, says: "Which? is widely recognised as the foremost authority in offering consumers sound, fair and impartial advice so to have Best-one rank so highly in its Convenience Shopper Survey is a fantastic achievement.
"The intensive work that we have been carrying out over the past year in putting the shopper at the heart of our offer and tailoring stores to the local demographic is obviously resonating with consumers. To see Best-one only pipped to the top spot by M&S Simply Food and Little Waitrose is a testament to the work that both our business development teams and members have put in to meeting the needs of today’s shoppers.
"Over the past six months, Best-one has increased sales year-on-year by 20%. No other major symbol group can match this growth. The Which? report proves that as a brand, Best-one is the most recommended symbol brand among customers and is vindication of the investment we have put over the past year."

Costcutter offers own brand that’s Tasty in no time

Costcutter has launched a new integrated Tasty in no Time campaign for its Independent own brand.
The activity has been designed to increase in-store awareness of the award-winning range, promoting quick and easy ’food for tonight’ recipe ideas to shoppers, such as a summer salad in 10 minutes.
A full range of in-store pos, including header boards, shelf stripping, fins, roundels and, for the first time, tear-off recipe cards are available for retailers. Additionally in-store radio advertising is being used to capture shoppers’ attention, with national press advertising, consumer leaflets and social media to directly engage shoppers.
Tasty in no Time will run throughout the year, with themed activity to support key calendar dates.
The Independent range currently comprises some 600 products from the weekly basics to special treats, and is benchmarked against the competition to provide supermarket-quality products at Costcutter, Mace and Simply Fresh stores.

Retailer view

"We currently have Subways on two of our forecourt sites one at our BP Forecourt just outside of York in Escrick, and one at our newly developed Service Station, Glews Services, just off the M62 at Goole. The Subway brand is strong and attracts a wide variety of customers, some who would be on-site already, for example, breakfasts are popular with tradespeople and commuters. But Subway also attracts young people so we can be busy with school children and families who might not be visiting the forecourt otherwise. We definitely have many customers who come just for a Subway.
"Once you know what you’re doing Subways are relatively easy to operate. The key is having a reliable and enthusiastic team and a good manager who is proactive and sales oriented.  
"When it comes to profit, Subway has quite low start-up costs compared to other franchises so the return on investment can be good. It is really up to the franchisee to maximise profits by keeping costs tight."