Despite the UK’s lead on the world stage of design, British petrol stations are not celebrated for their retail prowess and are notorious for poor-quality food and lacklustre facilities.
UK fuel station convenience stores are a far cry from the US, where roadside gas stations are supported by a base of collectors of ‘petroliana’, Japan, where consumers can order products on-line and get them delivered to the nearest convenience store, or even developing countries, which are fast picking up the pace to become market leaders in the field.
The Middle East is highly progressive in this respect, while European service stations, including those in France and Germany with their shopping mall-esque offerings, all leave the UK struggling to catch up.
However, fuel companies have started to smarten up their offerings by joining forces with large supermarkets and promoting their Green credentials.
Last week, Shell launched a fresh retail visual identity by Conran Design Group, which aims to modernise and make the service stations more customer-friendly.
This follows in the footsteps of BP, which unveiled its environmentally friendly Helios brand a few years ago, to focus on its Green credentials (DW 28 July 2000).
Fuel companies, meanwhile, are keen to build on their non-oil businesses, because they offer much higher margins than the sale of petroleum.
Maurice Acton, director of branded environments and energy sector consultancy at Duplex Communications, who has been involved with petrol station retail for many years in several countries, says, ‘A lot is going to happen. In the same way BP’s identity has become a lot more recessive, Shell will become much more recessive. They will try to get a cleaner, crisper look. They are all trying to clean up their act and look more environmentally friendly. It is a big scope to try to create iconic-looking fuelling stations. It will polarise and there will be a lot more larger stations, along with a lot more smaller stations. The bigger stations will be looking towards retail and everybody is looking to differentiate.
‘The fuel companies constantly need to ask themselves, what can they offer that is not the standard package? What’s the next move? They logically want convenience stores, but they do not really understand retail,’ he says.
Several of the fuel brands have joined forces with the big stores, such as Esso with Tesco and Shell with Sainsbury’s, not forgetting the rise in eco-friendly promotion, which businesses have no choice but to embrace.
‘They have to show that they are energy conscious,’ Acton adds. ‘The first to do that was BP. They are saying we are Green, why not look at our retail offer and make it more ready for that in the future.’
This view is shared by Minale Tattersfield partner David Davis, who worked on Shell’s first retail visual identity with Acton. ‘Going Green is a major thing for all the environmental reasons. Energy costs are going up and fuel stations have to make sure they are energy efficient. This is good for business and PR. When businesses such as Tesco and M&S have their Green initiatives, oil companies will listen [with] things like LED lighting and bottle banks.’ British oil companies should take note of the expanding global fuel market with regard to retail. Despite the UK being one of the first countries to start up fuel retail, less developed countries are beginning to take over.
South East Asia has leapt from being a third-world offering to being progressive, while India is blossoming and embracing the whole retail revolution, according to both Davis and Acton.
‘Worldwide, a lot of countries are deregulating’, says Acton, ‘South East Asia and Africa are joining the competition and have had to smarten up to compete with Shell and other market leaders, which means a whole area of work for the design industry. If you go to Brazil they have everything on site – chemists, patisseries. It is a small shopping mall.’
Many companies are restyling by new mergers and acquisitions, and they will be thinking about how they present themselves in the UK. Again this will be work for the designers.
The next five years could be very significant for this part of the industry. Acton says, ‘The most important factor is location and convenience. There has to be space for a range of facilities and consistency. Fuel is expensive, so the industry needs to make the experience a good one. As with cleanliness, people are conscious of design’.
‘They are looking for fewer sites, but better-quality sites,’ Davis continues. ‘They need bigger sites so that they can locate a convenience store or car wash. The industry needs better-quality sites that are more effective. BP is a very good effort because the stores have a nice feel and a classy shop front, and they are quite inviting. The food is still pretty abysmal, but it’s getting better.’
COURTING RETAIL SUCCESS
• In America, there are 140 000 convenience stores, of which 80% sell fuel
• Japan has 43 000 convenience stores. You can order products on-line and have them delivered to the nearest one
• Brazil’s service stations resemble shopping malls, while France and Germany offer a massive range of products, including massage chairs and showers
• UAE has the most efficient and progressive fuel stations