What Sells Petrol

Viv Corinaldi, the Acting Director of the South African Petroleum Retailers Association (SAPRA), offers insights into the business of fuel retailing based on his 35 years of experience in the industry

What sells petrol and what are the major considerations when deciding where to develop a new service station? What are the motivating and deciding factors that influence a motorist when he or she decides where to fill up?

Is it convenience, location or service? Or is it the fact that the needle on the vehicle’s fuel gauge is registering E? These are the questions that many prospective and existing fuel retailers often ask to measure the potential and current feasibility of retail service stations.

After more than 35 years in fuels retailing in Southern Africa, I have come to the conclusion that there are no quantum leaps in this business. This is especially true for our regulated petrol market where there is no price advantage. This, of course, does not apply to diesel but, for the purposes of this report, I will focus on petrol as the dominant product.

Many service stations are pumping more or less the same volumes today that they were pumping five and even 10 years ago. In fact, volumes are declining at a large number of sites. There are always exceptions, but the reality is that it is the so-called Establishment Criteria that largely determine a service station’s volume and its potential success or possible failure.

Calculating volume potential
What are the establishment criteria of a service station? Are they the factors and calculations that oil companies and property developers use to determine the volume and feasibility of a new service station? These factors include location, brand, facilities and operations.
In calculating the volume of a service station, a tried and tested industry model is used where a number of facts and assumptions are combined to project potential. The projected fuel volumetric through-put of a new site is calculated as follows:

  •  The number of vehicles passing the site per day (VPD), multiplied by
  • The assumed capture rate (CR) or % of vehicles that will drive onto the site and buy petrol,  multiplied by
  • The assumed average transaction value in litres or average fill (AF), multiplied by
  • The number of trading days (TD) in a month, given the site location and trading area.
  • Thus, by example, 15 000VPD x 3%CR x 30ltAF x 30TD = 405 000 litres per month projected volume.

Service stations are totally dependent on traffic volumes which pass the site on a daily basis. Oil companies and property developers use sophisticated traffic engineering to count and project traffic volumes on the road infrastructure to determine a site’s feasibility. But they have no influence on the actual number of vehicles passing a site, as this is a given.

Moreover, studies of sites with similar characteristics can determine the typical average fill but again this is normally a given and cannot be influenced. And most months boast a maximum of 30 trading days. In other words, traffic volumes, average fills and trading days are a given, largely known, calculated or assumed.

The capture rate is, however, influenced and determined by location, brand, facilities and operations. Many surveys and studies have been done to calculate capture rates, which differ from site to site depending on location. Sites in towns and central business districts generally have capture rates of between 2% and 5%, with access to the site for passing traffic a major contributor.

Location
Location – which can determine up to 70% of a site’s volume – is the key to success for most service stations. It cannot be over-emphasised how important this factor is.

  • Physical location – is the site located on a highway, is it in the CBD or is it suburban, in a shopping centre or industrial area?
  • Is the site located on work-bound or home-bound traffic flows and is it a mid-block or a corner site?
  • What is the traffic speed and are there traffic interruptions – traffic signals close to the site?
  • What is the quality of accessibility and the ease of driving onto and leaving the site? This is a key factor in determining the success of a service station.
  • How visible will the site be to approaching and passing traffic during the day and at night?
  • The site’s layout, design and configuration – given land size and dimensions – are important considerations.
  • The site level and whether it is above or below road level must also be factored in.
  • The road layout, number of lanes, access to traffic travelling in all directions and planned or anticipated road changes must be carefully considered.
  • The trading area’s demographics and the overall current and potential economic conditions in the trading area are of vital importance.
  • The number and size of competitor sites in the trading area is always factored into the equation.

Brand
Brands, including that of the oil company and other sub- and franchise-brands, contribute about 10% to a service station’s volume. There are many views on brand loyalty and substantial research has been done in this regard.
When talking about brand we include:

  • Strength of brand loyalty related to brand values, and faith in the brand;
  • Brand awareness and level of advertising, promotions and marketing initiatives;
  • Perceived product quality as a result of brand promise;
  • Visibility of the brand – oil companies with large networks are more visible;
  • Sponsorships and Community Social Investments.

Facilities

Service station facilities have improved and become very sophisticated in past years. Many sites have morphed into small shopping malls. The reality, however, is that a service station has a forecourt and some buildings with retail stores and shops – and, in most cases, this is what motorists expect.
When talking about facilities we include:

  • The quality of the overall site design and attractiveness;
  • Other retail businesses on site, including a convenience store, a car wash, restaurants or fast food outlets;
  • Accessibility of ablutions and rest rooms and the quality thereof;
  • Sufficient and safe parking;
  • The quality of the signage and general maintenance thereof;

Operations
Operational efficiency and excellence should be in place without an issue and again, each is an element that motorists always expect to see and experience when driving onto a service station forecourt.

When talking about operations we include:

  • The quality of the support from all product suppliers – no stock outs;
  • The quality of the food and coffee offer and overall stock levels in the c-store;
  • The quality of housekeeping/cleanliness and overall service levels;
  • The visibility and availability of the retailer to address queries and complaints;

The quality and value of national and local promotions;
In addition, a retail site owner must consider what he or she can do to maintain existing volumes and find new and innovative ways to build capacities. It is a good idea for a retailer to do a site evaluation and look for areas that can be improved. Generally there are two categories that can be evaluated and considered – volume destroyers and volume builders.

Volume destroyers
There is always some growth in the market but many service stations lose more volume than is added to the site, so that the net effect is normally no growth or volume decline. There are many factors that contribute to this but the following are considered the major influencers:

  • Poor service levels and a general apathy towards customers;
  • Untidy and dirty forecourts and buildings;
  • Poor and dirty ablutions and rest rooms;
  • Continuous stock outs;
  • Wrong fuel transactions.

Motorists experiencing these poor operational efficiencies are less likely to revisit a site and may advise others not to do so. The site gets a poor reputation and volumes decline. In many cases the retailer does not realise that this is happening because motorists don’t complain — they simply don’t come back.

Volume builders
There are a number of steps that a fuel retailer can take to develop new customer bases, increase the capture rate and grow volumes. These include:

  • Improve some of the establishment criteria such as visibility and accessibility;
  • Community involvement including free coffee for security services, a water point for runners and cyclists and a safe haven for children;
  • Business collaboration including a courtesy visit to all businesses in the immediate trading area, and membership of local business associations and forums to raise personal visibility;
  • Bakery and c-store goods delivery service to selected customers;
  • Install additional ATMs;
  • Visit schools, churches and other societies and find ways to collaborate and support their causes;
  • Meet and greet every single customer and get on first name terms with all of them;
  • Become the community hero and the first choice respected and trusted service station business in the area.

Conclusion
A famous oil company executive once said that there were 10 things that determined the success of a retail site. “Nine of them are location” he said. “The jury is out on the tenth one but guess what – we think it’s also location!”
Fuel retailing is a complex business with many factors that determine and contribute to a service station’s volumes. The facts and my years of experience, however, show that the major driving influences and contributors remain location, brand, facilities and operations in that order.