Brothers Tim and Mike Garner transformed their forecourt outlet into a stunning 2,200sq ft Nisa store of the future.

Dating back to 1968, Portsbridge Service Station in Cosham, Portsmouth, has always served the community well, so it was a serious business taking the decision last year to invest in the site and bring it in line with modern forecourt retailing.

“The site was old, it needed a serious amount of investment,” says Tim Garner, who runs the Garner Group alongside brother Mike. “We deliberated for a long time and it took more than two years to say ‘we ought to get along with it’ because it’s a serious investment, and you have to be comfortable it’s going to give you a return,” he adds. “We have four stores, but this is our first foray into a large convenience store.”

Store facts

Portsbridge Service Station

Size: 2,200sq ft

Opening hours: 6am-11pm

Staff: 25 full- and part-time

Services: ATM, Costa coffee, PayPoint, Lottery

The family had also sought advice from high-profile forecourt retailers, such as 2014 Convenience Retailer of the Year David Charman, of Spar Parkfoot, who shattered the perception of a traditional forecourt by transforming it into a thriving destination food store.

“My belief is that fuel is just another category that draws people in. If we were just a fuel site we’d have closed,” Tim says. “It’s a community site, there are a huge amount of houses around here, and we wanted to give something back.”

So the family invested more than £1m in replacing the 300sq ft traditional forecourt store with a 2,200sq ft convenience store over a nine-month period, while becoming the first forecourt to feature the Nisa ‘store of the future’ branding. “I felt Nisa was the freshest and the keenest to get involved, and I was also swayed by the new image,” Tim adds. It is the first symbol in the group’s estate, but the forecourt has stayed with Jet, with whom they enjoy a healthy relationship.

The new two-storey site houses central office upstairs, alongside the store room which is conveniently accessed by a lift.

When C-Store visited, 12 weeks after re-opening, sales were two-thirds towards target from a standing start. The store competes with a Tesco Metro in town, a Tesco Extra 10-minutes drive away, and a nearby McColl’s with a post office. “We’ve got the parking [nine bays], prices and promotions,” Tim states. “Everything is promotion driven, so we’ve had to change our mental approach to start competing. Our margins are slightly down, but it’s about quantity and bringing in footfall.”

He says the challenge is to convince people that they’re competitive, given the common perception that forecourts are expensive, especially state-of-the-art sites like theirs. “It’s a difficult one to break but we’re getting there,” he says.

About 25% of the stock is pricemarked, including sandwiches, pies, pizzas and cigarettes, while alcohol is mainly promotion driven and is performing well. “While the World Cup was on we did really well. We’ve got to target every event, whether it’s Father’s Day or sporting events,” Tim says.

Debutante categories chilled and frozen are selling well, while fruit and veg are showing “surprisingly good sales”. They’re trialling the new Heritage own brand range, which Tim describes as “really good value”, and utilising all the Nisa promotions, which are advertised locally on 3,500 leaflets every three weeks. “They’re very competitively priced, which is another reason we went with Nisa,” Tim says. “We have to be up there with the big boys to get customers in here, or they’ll drive a few minutes down the road to the supermarket,” he adds. “But every week we’ve shown steady growth. It’s quite exciting seeing customers come in and buy £30 or £40 bags of shopping.”

A food-to-go area sits to the left of the counter, comprising a Costa coffee unit, Rollover hot dog stand and Country Choice pastry fixture. Again, it’s been another baptism of fire for the team, who have had a few weeks to learn to prepare and display. “Now we’re going to start pushing it and doing meal deals, with bacon baps and sausage baps alongside a coffee,” says Tim. “And there’s no doubt that Costa brings people in.”

Another “huge” footfall driver is the adjacent free-to-use ATM, which contrasts with the next-door McDonald’s cash machine which charges £1.75. “It’s another service that you’ve got to have. A lot of people will spend the money they withdraw in store. Ladies prefer having a cash machine in the building rather than outside as they feel more secure,” he says.

Aside from the leaflet drops, promotions are also displayed on petrol pumps as customers fill up. So far, the nine parking spaces have prevented potential log jams resulting from fuel customers being lured by the promotions.

To further promote the store, they are planning a number of charity and fun days and aim to get the local press involved. “The papers usually just focus on how expensive our fuel is compared with the multiples, so we want to highlight the positives of what we do,” says Tim.

They will also reach out to the local college with a student offer, to be promoted on Twitter and the store’s Facebook page.

Tim and Mike are firm believers in learning from their peers and have mooted the possibility of bringing in Subway, which has proven so successful at a number of c-stores and forecourt sites. “We’re good copiers in this industry,” Tim says. “We don’t have huge R&D budgets so we have to copy; go around and see what independent retailers are doing, as well as the likes of Tesco.”

They will also consider working with local suppliers when the time is right. “I want to get this site ticking over the right way before opening the door to new suppliers - then we’ll take the blinkers off and have a look,” says Tim.

Controlling the ordering is a huge part of moving the store in the right direction, especially given the challenges of progressing from minimal turnover to “huge turnover”, Tim asserts. He relies on the skills of manager Lisa, who has had four years’ experience with BP and M&S, and together they are identifying what is and isn’t working. When C-Store visited, they were due to review the range and categories for the first time, alongside Nisa.

Lisa heads up a team of 25 full- and part-time staff, some of whom have been on the pay roll since the 1980s. Tim is proud of this and ensures staff are well looked after. “We pay more than the minimum wage because these guys help pay my wages,” he says. “We also incentivise them - if Jet is running a promotion and there’s a staff reward, the staff will get it all. Lisa does manager’s specials, too, and she’ll buy a prize for whoever sells the most of those products.”

The minimum wage is clearly not an issue, but there is one legislative issue which particularly galls Tim. “Business rates is an issue because we’re not on a level playing field with the supermarkets. They can put a petrol station in their car park and pay completely different rates to us,” he says. “The way rates are calculated for a particular forecourt is wrong.”

Business rates may have provided a good reason for diversifying, but Tim insists the shop will continue to evolve: “The skill is being able to change and have the software to enable you to make the right decision. Our business will constantly change to meet the market needs.”

Renewable energy

The redevelopment provided the opportunity to embrace green technology, so 51 solar panels generate on-site electricity, supplemented by 100% renewable energy from a company called Ecotricity. The building itself is made of insulated steel frame panels, which creates a “really warm envelope”, while lighting is sensor-controlled LED except for the shop lights which can be turned off manually. Water comes from an on-site borehole, and is used for the car wash, forecourt usage and toilets. Paid-for water is used only for cooking and hand washing.