Black gold at the heart of the town

Petrol stations as community centres of the future? In a saturated market, oil companies search for new ideas to build brand loyalty. Michael Evamy reports

It’s late. You’re driving home in the company car, trying to forget about work. There’s nothing in the fridge at home and you haven’t eaten since you popped that Prozac going into the lunchtime conference. And that reminds you – after the meeting you ordered a new shirt from the on-line shopping service. You need it for tomorrow’s intercontinental tele-presentation. Where do you go to pick it up? Naturally, the filling station just before the turn-off to your street. You park, pick up the shirt, and have a pizza while you’re there. You might even fill up with petrol too.

If you thought the only thing filling stations were good for were bags of charcoal for the barbecue and Esso’s 1970 World Cup coin collection, it may be time to reconsider. If one or two design consultants are right, the local filling station of the future will be anything the local community wants it to be: diner, dry cleaner, supermarket, pick-up point for electronic shoppers and anything else an open-24-hours establishment can offer. This, we are told, will soon be the age of the filling station as “community centre”. It sounds incongruous and it is: the only way petrol stations could be said to have got close to the community has been in allowing spilt fuel to percolate through their forecourts and infiltrate the soil beneath people’s homes.

The latest developments in filling stations still have little to do with warm feelings toward residents. Rather, they are to do with the transformation of oil companies into retailers, and of supermarkets into petrol stations. Whether it is Texaco or Tesco running your local station in future, it is likely that you’ll be drawn there by food and drink brand names rather than the brand of fuel.

The petrol retailing industry has reached a watershed. What was previously a fairly straightforward, process-based business has been turned on its head by the price war, the inevitable cost of a steady, inexorable saturation of the market. Now extra pressure has arrived in the form of Tesco’s stand-alone filling stations complete with great mini-supermarkets, called Tesco Express.

It’s a time of consolidation, hence the BP/Mobil European joint venture announced at the beginning of March. Oil companies are closing down sites – around 2000 in 1995 – and squeezing more revenue from the ones they have left. There is no money to be made in just selling petrol, but there is in making petrol stations nice places to go, and oil companies are looking at all the options.

Oil companies have perennially tried out different forecourt layouts, but they have centred around the sale of petrol and the circulation of vehicles on to and off the site. The speed, number and position of the pumps have been the driving factors behind redesigns. There has also been a monolithic approach to the total station design. Esso, for example, is synonymous with the consistent, pan-European fill-up-and-shop offer – whether you’re in Stockholm or Staines, you know what to expect.

What that approach has failed to stimulate, though, is brand loyalty. What sort of person has a favourite brand of petrol? So forecourt concepts now are turning away from the itinerant driver and taking more notice of their local context. In this way, the retailing mentality is beginning to rub off on to oil companies. “It’s a truism that every outlet is different,” says Martin Finch. His consultancy, Matthew Finch, is a specialist in forecourt retail design. “Where Esso and Shell have laid down global schemes, it works to a degree, but site-by-site they don’t perform as well as schemes that are more flexible and tailor their offer to the locality,” he adds.

Texaco has been the first major to truly recognise this opportunity. Its Millennium store on London’s Albert Embankment won the Retail Environments category in the 1996 Design Week Awards. Like Sir Norman Foster at Stansted Airport, architect Arup Associates has designed an elegant system of slimline, tree-like columns supporting a windowed canopy structure. But an important feature is the versatility of the canopy and shop architecture: the design team of Arup and 20/20 Design & Strategy has generated 20 individual forecourt formats to suit Texaco sites around the UK.

Airports have had more of an influence than meets the eye, according to 20/20’s head of strategy Yaron Meshoulam. “We are taking the BAA approach of building a retail proposition around passenger flow. The big picture for oil companies is to say: ‘We have this catchment area, this size of outlet, this sort of local market, a shop open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; what are the different propositions we can put on the forecourt?’ You treat it as a blank sheet of paper.”

Meshoulam suggests that the people most likely to make use of on-line shopping services – working couples – are exactly the people who will not be at home to take delivery of their orders. So why not turn filling stations into “consumer response centres”, where deliveries can be picked up? “There’s an opportunity, with the demise of the pub, of the community centre, for forecourts to become community centres, with a shop, dry cleaners and petrol. That is the enormous potential. Just looking at the technology on the forecourt itself is like looking at the tree rather than the forest,” he says.

Forgive me if I’m still focused on a little bit of the bark of the tree, but what about bottlenecks caused by shoppers who leave their cars parked at the pumps while they’re perusing the papers and Monster Munch? The answer, according to Meshoulam, is a two-track arrangement of a combination of Formula 1 speed petrol pumps and a holding area for customers wishing to shop and eat. Something like this has already been successful for an independent client of Martin Finch’s. What was an already thriving forecourt, selling 100 000 gallons of petrol a week (150 per cent more than a typical Tesco station), decided to install credit card-operated pumps. Theoretically, customers would now not have to enter the shop. Petrol sales rose but, in addition, shop takings did not fall: fewer people were entering the shop, but those who did – including pedestrians – had more time to browse and spend money.

Another alternative format catering for large volumes of drivers in a hurry would feature total automation in the form of a set of drive-in “pods”. Here, says Meshoulam, customers would help themselves to petrol and also to drinks, snacks, cash and a newspaper from a bank of vending machines. Garage forecourts are a natural setting for vending machines – cash machines are already a big draw – and one that snack manufacturers are aiming for. The machines on offer currently are expensive, dull, off-the-shelf contraptions which do nothing to reflect the character of the product. However, Golden Wonder has just begun distributing its own countertop machines for dispensing Pot Noodles, one of the most profitable snacks around. Designed by Leicester product consultancy Hodges & Drake, the machines aim straight at the snack’s target market and feature interchangeable US diner-style facias moulded from chrome-plated, vacuum-formed plastic panels which clip on to a standard substructure. Swapping the panels with future designs is an easy way of keeping up the on-site brand image with the advertising. It fits exactly with Texaco’s prominent display of brands such as Pizza Hut, Nescafé and Dunkin’ Donuts at the Millennium store.

From filling station to whistle-stop to brand-port to community centre? It’s enough to make you forget about the stuff you’re putting in your car.m

Latest articles