What Can Rural Petrol Stations Do To Survive?

I recently saw an article in several publications that bemoaned the decline in independent petrol stations around the UK over the last 20 years. Apparently, the number of petrol stations in the UK has dropped by more than half over the last 20 years, despite the number of cars on the road doubling in the same period.

The casualties are mostly independent rural petrol stations, which cannot compete with chains of supermarket and branded petrol stations. A new report by Palmer and Harvey, a wholesaler that supplies many garage forecourt shops, has found that there are now fewer than 9,000 petrol stations in the UK, resulting in ‘fuel deserts’ being created in some rural areas.

Apparently, the worst example of this is Torridge, in Devon, where there are 11,300 cars for every petrol station in the area. P&H put forward the theory that motorists are now being forced to drive further than they would otherwise do to fill up with fuel. This may be true, but in many cases, I think there is a different explanation.

Many motorists fill up at the supermarket, a journey they would make anyway. Given that, there is no logical reason for them to pay more to fill up at more expensive independent filling stations, even if they are nearer.

A New Model For Rural Forecorts

Obviously Palmer and Harvey is concerned about supermarkets ousting independent petrol stations from the market because it affects their business – P&H deliver to forecourt shops, but not those of supermarkets.

However, it is becoming obvious that rural garages need to reinvent their business model if they are to survive. For drivers who visit the supermarket regularly, a couple of pumps by the roadside and a friendly face at the till is just not enough to offset the cost of paying perhaps 4p-8p more per litre than supermarket fuel prices.

I live in a rural area and one of the trends I have noticed in the time I have lived here is that while a number of independent garages have closed, some have been upgraded and are thriving. The businesses that are doing well are the ones that offer a large, modern forecourt, competitive fuel pricing and a mini supermarket (plus sometimes even a post office) – all under the same roof.

This effectively replaces traditional independent village shops, post offices and petrol stations with one larger business. Traditionalists may not like this, but it is much better than having nothing, which seems to be the only alternative. Modern forecourt businesses like these have enough scale to offer competitive fuel pricing and to sell a useful range of food and convenience products in their forecourt shops – something which people seem to like.

It is true that one of these businesses is enough to serve the needs of a number of surrounding villages – but that is what is necessary to compete with supermarket tactics and pricing power.

Perhaps P&H should be encouraging this kind of new super-garage, rather than bemoaning the loss of the traditional, small-scale local petrol station.

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