M&S Simply Food takes to the road at eight BP Connect stores.

Just as Marks & Spencer was shouting about its biggest growth in food sales for more than two years, BP conveniently opened the first Connect forecourt shop to feature the Simply Food concept.

The pilot scheme is being rolled out at eight key sites across the UK, kicking off at the BP Connect site at Hammersmith Flyover in London. Other sites are: Breakspear Hemel in Hertfordshire; Milton Dumbarton in Scotland; Westcliff, Orsett South and Roundacre Basildon, all in Essex; Slateford Road in Edinburgh; and Shepherds Bush in London.

“We looked at a range of sites because we wanted to test different demographics and areas,” says BP UK retail director Graham Sims. “The eight trial sites are a mix of fast trunk road sites and more suburban residential areas, as well as a mix of northern and southern locations. Hammersmith is one of our flagship sites so it was appropriate for it to be in the trial.”

The Simply Food pilot is a true partnership between the two retailers, and creating a “seamless, integrated offer” was important to both. Jill Bruce, head of food formats at Marks & Spencer, says: “We’ve done everything together - it was important so that the customer wouldn’t go to two places for things that they would usually buy together.”

Unlike Marks & Spencer’s existing 132 standalone food stores, including the 21 in railway stations and airports and eight at motorway service areas, the BP/Simply Food collaboration sees M&S foods alongside big brand names for the first time. “The range is a combination of our edited best range, adding key big brands where the brand is strong,” says Bruce. “We’re confident we’re giving customers the best of both worlds.”

Adds Sims: “This is the first time something like this has happened in the UK; we’ve designed it so it’s a hybrid offer within one box. There’s nothing as integrated as this.”

Brands are in greatest dominance in long-life and impulse categories, such as Heinz baked beans, PG Tips and big-name confectionery and snacks. “We’ve included M&S products where we’re adding something quite different,” says Bruce.

The Hammersmith store holds 1,200 product lines, 700 of which are M&S. Of these, 7% are food-to-go lines. Sims expects the Wild Bean Café, which has also seen a rebranding and range shake-up, to continue to represent about 20% of sales. But while food to go is a strong part of the offer, both parties want to drive food-for-later sales.

The food-to-go range comprises M&S high-quality, pre-packed sandwiches, wraps and rolls, salads and sushi boxes, while BP takes care of the baked-on-site hot savouries and new open baguettes, jacket potatoes and pizza. “It’s designed to be complementary,” says Sims. “With the new Wild Bean open baguettes we’re moving towards an Upper Crust, Prêt a Manger-style offer.

“Healthier foods are something our customers demand,” adds Sims. “M&S is able to give us this. It’s a balance, though. People still want things like muffins, but when they feel guilty they want a salad.”
There is one casualty in the collaboration, and that’s Thresher, which has been replaced with M&S wines, plus branded beers and spirits. “You won’t see Thresher where there’s M&S,” says Sims.

M&S and BP will be assessing the success of the pilot stores over the next nine months. But the concept could appear on all existing 170 Connect sites, plus the 34 BP acquired following the break-up of its Safeway joint venture. One of these - in Basildon, Essex - is already part of the Simply Food trial.

“We need to give the test a substantial amount of time - we’ll assess stores through winter, Christmas and spring,” says Sims. “But the plan is to get Simply Food into as many sites as possible. We envisage hundreds. The roadside convenience sector is a big opportunity, and we’re offering well-respected products in a quick, convenient way.”