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The Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing

Pump It Up

Consider the customer experience first when designing the forecourt.

​By Pat Pape

There’s plenty to contemplate when planning the fueling area of a new convenience store. Everything impacts the outcome: the lot size, state and federal mandates, the number and placement of fuel dispensers and the parking lot layout.

While all these things are critical, experienced design experts believe the most important consideration should be the overall customer experience. “It’s about creating an experience for the customer in the way that you design,” said Michael Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a retail design firm in Fort Worth, Texas. “I call it experiential design.”

Considering Fuel
In the United States, bigger is better, and the typical new convenience store has six or more fuel dispensers. “Bigger stations are equal to the ‘fresh’ inside the store,” said Mike Zahajko, president of CAF, a supplier of forecourt cleaning products based in Maple Valley, Washington.

Like the number of TV channels, the number of fueling choices has flourished over the past few years. Anyone planning a new location will want to consider the various options that result from state regulations, customer needs and automaker innovations.

Ethanol, the dominant renewable fuel in the U.S., continues to be touted as more environmentally friendly than gasoline because it reduces carbon mon- oxide emissions and burns cleaner. At the same time, “diesel is coming back with a vengeance,” Zahajko said. “Anyone building a station and not putting in diesel is making a mistake.”

Other alternatives, including natural gas and electric car recharging stations “are being forced on the industry by regulators,” he said. “When operators are required to install recharging equipment, most choose the less pricey, low-level charging stations. Convenience store operators need to be future-ready. They should be prepared as much as they can to adjust to and accommodate these changes.”

Placing the Pumps
With today’s bigger store locations, experts recommend a drive-in fueling configuration with the islands facing the store, making it easier for consumers to pull up to a pump. “Customers face the building, which speaks to them, enticing them to come in,” Joseph Bona, president of MoseleyBona Retail, said. “It seems more customer-friendly.”

If the store features up-front parking that places customers closer to the entrance, both fuel and store customers need adequate room to enter and exit the lot safely. “Some store operators want 40 feet from the end of the parking spaces to the front of the fuel island. Others want 34 or 35 feet,” Bona said. “You have to sit down and plan for safety more than anything else.”

Another important concern is the location of the fuel tanks and understanding when the tankers are offloading. “Oftentimes people will design where the tanks go based on the cost of installation, and they put the tanks close to the pumps to shorten the runs,” Lawshe said. “That inevitably puts those tanks right in traffic patterns. Determine if you’re designing for lower cost or customer convenience. There are all these moving pieces coming together when planning today’s c-stores and travel plazas.”

Many retailers have installed concrete or steel bollards in the storefront to serve as physical barriers and designate appropriate vehicle and pedestrian flow. “You’re seeing a lot more floor-to-ceiling glass,” Bona said. “While not everybody uses them, bollards do create a sense of safety and provide some protection from cars [accidentally] hopping the curb or driving thru the glass.”

Bollards also can serve as marketing tools. By creating special signage that slips over the bollard, retailers can send promotional messages. “That may be better than plastering signs over the big, beautiful windows they’ve just installed,” he said.

Keep It Clean
When planning any retail environment, most opera- tors first focus on a design that meets their retailing goals and attracts customers off the street. The ease and expense of maintaining that fresh look may not be considered until the outlet begins to show wear.

“Do they think about what it’s going to look like in a year from now or five?” Zahajko said. “And how does it serve the demand for green products?”

One example is choosing the shape of the gas island. The most popular designs are the “dog bone” shape and the simple curved island. “The simple one is easier to clean and maintain,” he said. “But a lot of times operators aren’t designing the gas island for ongoing maintenance and cleaning capabilities.”

Failing to think through maintenance requirements can be a major mistake. “Gas islands usually come with a metal band around them, and some operators want to paint them white or in the brand’s colors,” Zahajko said. “But that’s difficult to maintain long term. Pretty soon tires start hitting them.

“You’d never not clean inside the store,” he said. “But what happens on the outside is the handshake—the first hand that goes out to welcome someone to come into the store. People are becoming more and more aware that what happens on the forecourt is a tell-tale sign of what is going on inside. If it looks terrible and you’re trying to operate a food program, you’ve already gone two steps in the wrong direction.”

Canopy Configuration
C-store gas canopies appeared in the late 20th century to shield fuel customers from the elements. For years, the canopy extended from the pumps to the c-store, making the two operations a single entity. But that’s changing.

“It comes down to an individual preference,” Bona said. “But if you are serious about both food and fuel, I recommend that you treat them as two separate and distinct partners on the site and not connect the canopy [to the store]. When you attach the canopy to the building, it’s harder for the store to look like a viable, real food destination. It continues to have the ‘old gas station’ association.”

Lawshe shares that opinion. “A lot of customers come in for coffee or something to eat and the perception of going to a gas station for that is not always a good one,” he said. “Today a lot of retailers aren’t bringing the canopy to the store. They let the store have a brand identity all its own even if they have the same name on the fuel as they do on the store. No other retail and curb service entities in the United States have a cover going from where the customer parks to the front door. It’s no longer necessary or preferred.”

Currently, Rutter’s of York, Pennsylvania, is opening new, larger, travel-center-style locations, to serve high-speed diesel customers, as well as the everyday consumer. Each location features large, bright, custom canopies covering the gas islands only. “We call our canopy the Starship Enterprise because it has a nice, curved, almost spaceship look,” said Derek Gaskins, chief customer officer at Rutter’s. “It’s very futuristic and modern.”

Parking in front of the new Rutter’s stores is all about serving food to consumers. “And when we prepare parking for truckers, that’s about the food too,” he said. “Truckers want to be able to park, come in and enjoy a good meal. We have a designated area for 18-wheelers to park, and we separate that from normal customer parking.”

Every extra amenity at the forecourt—from providing hand sanitizer at the pump to playing jazz in the background—should deliver an improved customer experience, Lawshe said. And they combine to create an overall atmosphere that makes the compulsory chore of pumping fuel far more pleasant.

“Convenience store customers are invited into the retail space by good architecture, good design [and] good signage,” he said. “The way you design is all about creating an experience for the customer.”

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer.