Snax24 knows its place but still flourishes, says Helen Gregory
Bill Ahearn has been in the forecourt business long enough to know what works. As md of nationwide forecourt and convenience operator Snax24, he is up-to-date with the latest trends but acknowledges the chain's limitations.
Attempts to become a fast food retailer a few years ago didn't pay off; chips and hot dogs weren't popular with shoppers. "We were 10 years ahead of our time so reverted to the more conventional UK definition of snacking, with more things coming in packs."
Selling fresh fruit and veg was also trialled but didn't work. "So we keep very much to snacks and convenience - we're very highly impulse. We want to give the consumer a better offer but not necessarily in range - after all consumers might not want a range of wines. They just want an affordable wine on their way home."
Snax24 is also working to tailor ranges to the catchment area at individual stores. "We're building up our brand value by using micro-marketing," says Ahearn.
Its selective impulse mindset has seen the chain experience double digit growth for the third year running, and it will expand this autumn to 79 sites when eight more come on line. A big lump of cash has been used to revamp the stores over the past three years, while EpoS has been installed. New categories, such as bakeries and off licences, are being added.
US consultants helped the chain evolve from a fuel retailer to convenience store, and a new-build shop in Dudley is one of those with a Stateside feel; the counter is in the middle of the store, with cigarettes vended above the cashier's head.
Says Ahearn: "In most forecourts, the cashier is in front of you when you walk in, but this way, you walk round the store - having a chance to shop the shop - before you have to pay."
Ahearn is looking for more sites but recognises there is a limit. "We want to get to no fewer than 100, which would give us a fairly comfortable fit in terms of economies of scale. We can still control them, but if we got bigger than that we'd need a new team of managers.
"We're not in the numbers game and, after all, there are only a limited number of good sites to be had."
The business faces particular challenges from being so widespread. With branches as far afield as Newcastle, Ipswich and Southampton, Ahearn acknowledges it's not easy to maintain a feeling of cohesion, however he regularly tries to bring staff together on a regional basis. Snax24 also pays above the industry average - one reason Ahearn believes staff turnover is under 20%.
The chain has a mixture of commission operators (who run the stores like a franchise) and company-employed managers and Ahearn says they're still not sure which approach works best. Snax24 owns the sites and buys a licence to brand the site from the oil company. "We're between a rock and a hard place," says Ahearn. "We have to work with the oil companies while competing with them and their economies of scale."
Each site has CCTV to combat shoplifting, while motorists driving off without paying for petrol are a real headache in some areas, including the West Midlands. And Snax24 is frustrated by the lack of police involvement.
Another key concern for Ahearn is the need for better terms from wholesalers. "There's a dilemma that we over-price in the convenience industry and that's a big worry. The way to increase turnover is to be more competitive, but we can't move our prices any further down."