By Roy Strasburger
One of the most important aspects of the convenience store business is often overlooked when discussing store operations—gasoline. This is interesting because we all know that fuel sales have a huge impact on the profitability, if not the financial viability, of a retail site.
We often talk about the correct pricing for a candy bar, the need to expand foodservice or what the latest trendy gadget is that we should be selling in the store. However, for those independent retailers that sell gasoline, arguably the most important financial part of the business sits out in front of the store—the fuel pumps.
I would argue that your fuel offer should be given as much consideration as your leading in-store product. We use category management techniques for the products inside the store—why not do the same for the products outside the store? The same fundamentals apply: cost, retail price, presentation and competition. However, unless you are jobber or a refiner, most operators don’t really give fuel a second thought except for pricing. It is just “there.”
Unless you live in the New Jersey or Oregon, selling gasoline has become a low labor, low touch proposition. We no longer have contact with customers until they come into the store. But the success of the business, on several different levels, depends on how the store operator interacts with the forecourt. Let’s look at the different ways that you, as an operator, should be involved in fuel business at your site.
Environmental. The first line of defense in protecting the earth from gasoline spills is you, the operator. Avoiding contamination and pollution incidents is about paying attention to the details. The first is keeping an eye on customers to make sure they are using the fuel equipment properly and filling their vehicles correctly. A customer leaving an engaged nozzle in the fuel tank and then walking away (into the store, for example) is a recipe for an overfill spill if the nozzle is not inserted correctly or doesn’t automatically shut off. Also, making sure that the gasoline delivery truck is parked in the appropriate place above the fill tubes can help prevent overfills and excessive hose draining while doing a delivery.
Paying attention to the automatic tank gauge (ATG) when an alarm sounds can be hard to do with everything else going on in store, but it needs to be addressed immediately (it’s called an “alarm” for a reason). And, if you, the operator, have access to the information, confirming that gallons sold plus gallons still in the tank equal the gallons delivered will help make sure that fuel is not disappearing from a tank or a pipe into the ground.
These simple steps can help prevent your site being the cause of hydrocarbon contamination in the soil or the groundwater—an expensive and time-consuming issue to remediate.
Safety. Something that many people don’t know is that gasoline is flammable (I know, you thought it was inflammable, didn’t you?). Seriously, though, buying gasoline has become so simple that it is easy to forget how dangerous the product is. You should have clear signage posted about safety precautions, and always pay attention to what is going on at the pumps. Big no-nos when someone is refueling: smoking, leaving the car running, talking on the phone and even sitting in the car (the static electricity from getting in and out of the car can, though rarely, spark a fire). Always make sure that when a customer is filling a portable gas can that the can is on the ground (and not in the back of a pickup truck, for example). Speaking of gas cans, gasoline should only be put in approved containers. Make sure that the delivery truck is parked in the proper spot to avoid accidents with other cars or creating a tripping hazard for pedestrians with the delivery hoses. Safety first!
Fuel quality. You are the person that the customer and the fuel supplier are relying on to make sure that the fuel you sell meets expectations. To do this, check the tanks for water (either manually or through the ATG, if you have one), empty the spill buckets by dipping the water out and disposing of it properly, verifying that the delivery truck is dropping the fuel in the right tank so that you don’t cross contaminate the fuel and regularly check the filters on the pumps to make sure they are clean of debris. Doing this will not only make your customer happy but also may keep you from getting a bill for a car engine that has stopped working because of water in the gas.
Equipment. The operator is often responsible for making sure that the fuel equipment is in good working order. The following things should be checked every day: Is the card reader operating, and does it have receipt paper? Have the card readers been tampered with, or have skimmers been added? Are the hoses and nozzles in good shape? Is there a problem with the safety breaks on the hoses? Do you see any spills or stains indicating a release of product? When you check inside the dispenser do you see or smell gasoline indicating that there might be a leak? Are all of the canopy lights working? Is the concrete around the pumps stained or covered in gum? As soon as you notice an equipment problem, notify the appropriate person and have it fixed as quickly as possible. Customers expect the fuel equipment to be like a cellphone—it should work all the time, and when it doesn’t it is really annoying.
Customer service. The person who comes to your store to buy fuel is often looking for the solution for minor issues. Make sure that the water bucket is full of clean water, that the squeegee is in good shape with both the sponge and the blade being functional, and check that paper towels are in the dispensers. Many stores have started offering hand sanitizer and/or gloves at the pump island to protect their customers and to help them keep their hands clean.
A good customer service experience will bring your customer back. More importantly, it will keep you top of mind when the customer needs to buy something other than fuel. We use a good gasoline experience to help us build our customers’ shopping habits. We want them instinctively turning into our stores without thinking about it.
As you can see, all of these things will help make your business successful and sustainable. Working with your fuel provider to ensure that the customer is having the best experience possible is a win for both of you. The fuel supplier sells more fuel and you get more customer traffic. More traffic means more sales which leads to more profits—just because you paid attention to the fuel pumps.
Roy Strasburger is the president of StrasGlobal. For 35 years StrasGlobal has been the choice of global oil brands, distressed assets managers, real estate lenders and private investors seeking a complete, turn-key retail management solution.