Keeping it simple is the key to Snax 24’s success, says Amy Balchin

Snax 24 has stood its ground in The Grocer Top 50 as independents have begun to suffer in the fast-changing convenience sector. Many changes have been made to the business in the two years since The Grocer last spoke to chief executive Bill Ahearn and the company is today ranked in 22nd position, remaining close to its 20 ranking in 2002.
Although store count has dropped to 75 forecourts across the UK (including 30 operated for Shell under a management agreement) from 79 two years ago, this year Snax 24’s turnover was £52m, up 6% two years running and an £11m increase on 2002.
Ahearn says smaller businesses should not be reluctant to sell off stores with the aim of growing through acquisitions: “One of the things an independent has to do is not be sentimental.” He says Snax 24 has been able to continue growing in today’s competitive convenience market because it has competed with the multiples for more than a decade.
“We have already been through the pain barrier. We have differentiated from the supermarkets. We know that our customers are broadly fuel buying and we focus on grab-and-go, people on the hoof.”
For this reason the forecourt stores stock mainly drinks and snacks, which are located at the front of store so that shoppers are not encouraged to linger while their car remains at the pump, resulting in queues and affecting the fuel business. The outlets therefore have a limited range, particularly in terms of their fresh and chilled offer.
Ahearn says trying to offer more than customers require is one of the mistakes the supermarkets make on their forecourts: “We do not want people browsing when they leave their car at the pump. People buy things they can put in their pocket, eat in the car - a chocolate bar or bottle of water.”
Taking this “grab-and-go” mantra, Snax 24 is working with Country Choice to develop a range of bakery products with customer-friendly packaging so that foods can be picked up easily and eaten on the move.
It is also trying to develop a better understanding of off-licence sales, adds Ahearn. “By and large we are competing with the supermarkets on alcohol price. What we really need to understand is why people pick up a case of beer.”
It is essential to keep propelling the business forward if you are to survive in such a competitive market, he says. “What we are doing now will not be good enough in a year’s time, and if you look back a year, our standard then would not be good enough today. We have to push forward.”
Ahearn says Snax 24’s continuing success can also be attributed to its specialism in forecourt operations. The retailer has its roots firmly in the fuel industry and was born out of the company widely credited with bringing self-service petrol stations to the UK, Heron International.
Ahearn, who once worked for Heron, says it was the first to introduce cut-price fuel: “Back in the ’70s and ’80s we were the largest private company in Europe. Competition had not really been a part of fuel retailing - we in effect taught the oil companies in the UK how to move apart.”
Snax 24, coming from this forerunner but always an entirely separate entity, has in the past attempted other offers, such as fast food, and four years ago it experimented with a standalone format in Stratford, east London. But this was quickly abandoned.
“It was a disaster,” says Ahearn. “We quickly realised there was an expertise to what we do and an expertise to the high street. If we tried that today we would be murdered.”
He believes in a hands-on approach and he and other board members visit at least one store every week as part of a monitoring scheme.
There are plans for expansion and Ahearn says the aim, as in 2002, is to increase Snax 24’s portfolio to more than 100 stores. However, the problem, as always, is finding the right locations. And he won’t be drawn into paying sky-high prices: “This is one of the major problems for independents - people are selling to the highest bidder. But we will not pay more than we think they are worth.”