In the oil fields

On a green field site outside the town of Bandon, Co Cork, Will Hernon and father John built a substantial forecourt with 1,100 sq ft of retail space. Eight years later and still trading as a Londis, things have changed dramatically and especially in the last two years. Petrol has risen and fallen, the shop has evolved, been revamped and modernised, and the world is a different place than it was 12 months ago. Business is good all the same, Will tells me
On a green field site outside the town of Bandon, Co Cork, Will Hernon and father John built a substantial forecourt with 1,100 sq ft of retail space. Eight years later and still trading as a Londis, things have changed dramatically and especially in the last two years. Petrol has risen and fallen, the shop has evolved, been revamped and modernised, and the world is a different place than it was 12 months ago. Business is good all the same, Will tells me

Five petrol stations in one small town should be enough to frighten any forecourt owner, or at least so you’d imagine

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12 September 2008 | 0

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On a green field site outside the town of Bandon, Co Cork, Will Hernon and father John built a substantial forecourt with 1,100 sq ft of retail space. Eight years later and still trading as a Londis, things have changed dramatically and especially in the last two years. Petrol has risen and fallen, the shop has evolved, been revamped and modernised, and the world is a different place than it was 12 months ago. Business is good all the same, Will tells me

On a green field site outside the town of Bandon, Co Cork, Will Hernon and father John built a substantial forecourt with 1,100 sq ft of retail space. Eight years later and still trading as a Londis, things have changed dramatically and especially in the last two years. Petrol has risen and fallen, the shop has evolved, been revamped and modernised, and the world is a different place than it was 12 months ago. Business is good all the same, Will tells me.

This road was (not) brought to you by the NRA

Sitting in Will Hernon’s office, I can see the steady stream of traffic stopping at his Londis forecourt. Obviously the hefty competition close by does not detract too much from his business. “We’ve made some mileage over the years selling petrol. It’s always been good but I suppose over the last two years it’s been much better.

There’s a lot more traffic. It’s taken time for people to start using the bypass road here but it’s definitely picked up in the last two years,” Hernon explained.Having sat on the site along the proposed Bandon bypass for a number of years, they decided a forecourt might be a profitable venture, particularly when the road was complete and brought them not only passing traffic, but access to a residential area on the outskirts of the far side of the town. Today however, the bypass is still not completed and appears likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. “It’s been an absolute disaster,” says Will, less than thrilled at the NRA’s willingness to defer the rollout of a vital piece of infrastructure.

Luckily this didn’t spell disaster for Hernon’s Londis, which was still able to benefit from the stream of traffic coming from the other direction, as well as housing development in the locality. “Over the last four, five years particularly there’s been a lot of new houses. It’s getting busier all the time, and the bypass is used a lot, although obviously not as much as it could be.”

Although they had traded up to a full off-licence over three years ago, the store’s layout was not maximising the department and its great earning potential prior to the revamp

Although they had traded up to a full off-licence over three years ago, the store’s layout was not maximising the department and its great earning potential prior to the revamp

Many forecourts make light prices

Naturally, where there is plenty of traffic forecourt business is bound to follow. As a result Hernon’s is one of five petrol stations surrounding the small town of Bandon. Surprisingly perhaps, Will prefers the company. “It’s a lot but we have a good passing trade here. It makes the petrol station business here in Bandon very, very competitive. Everybody here matches each other in price for petrol (129.90 cents per litre for diesel, 123.90 cents per litre for unleaded petrol at Hernon’s forecourt). We probably have the best petrol stations in the country for the size of the town, and the most.

Ironically, the challenges of the location of Will’s business actually help to create one of its unique selling points, i.e. its competitiveness. “The main draw for a petrol station is the fuel prices, Bandon is that bit cheaper than Cork City. It’s good, it keeps you sharp and makes you work hard to keep your customers and get more.” For Hernon’s, this means promotions and running good offers in the off-licence department and deli, where the bulk of the business in the shop is done.

The focus on the deli and off-licence is evident from the first moment I entered the store. Right, smack in front of the entrance, the deli confronts the customers, who can’t escape a full view of its plentiful offer. Just beyond it the wine, beers and spirits sit in their own, brightly illuminated section, signposted by the familiar ‘Chill Inn’ branding. Will tells me the store underwent a full revamp around 18 months ago, the aim of which was to change completely the focus of the business and bring it more into line with contemporary convenience.

Thanks to the extraordinary amount of competition in the area, Bandon has some of the most competitive petrol stations around

Thanks to the extraordinary amount of competition in the area, Bandon has some of the most competitive petrol stations around

Out with the old, in with the new

“Prior to this we were doing nothing but grocery. One of your standard kinds of petrol stations that try to do a bit of everything. Where our off-licence is in the corner there our deli was originally.” Although they had traded up from a wine licence to a full off-licence over three years ago, the store’s layout was not maximising the department and its great earning potential. “So we basically shut off one half of the shop for a week and got stuck into it. Revamped everything, turned everything around, and I think it all turned out very well.”

The store’s fresh food participation has also increased, including the deli, which takes pride of place. Although Hernon’s still carries a small selection of essential grocery it’s clear what way the business is pointing now, and clearly doing it well too. Unexpectedly, they picked up a gong last year for Best Fresh Offering in a forecourt. “When we did our revamp we cut back on the shop floor gondolas by almost 50%, we were really focusing on our deli. And it paid off last year when we won that award; we only had it open about two months when we won it,” says Will, amused.

The new focus of the business is very much emphasised by the layout and physical space within the store, guiding customers towards its major, high-earning departments. All shelving has been cut down to about 1.2 metres in height also to allow for greater visibility in the shop. “You shouldn’t have to peek over the top of shelving, you should be able to see something of everything in the shop.” The interior has also benefited from new lighting installed as part of the refit by local company, Fit All, from Abbeyfele, Limerick.

Putting something of a dampener on things, I ask Will if he has noticed any difference in the trade this year? “It’s definitely slower, because a lot of the builders have lost their jobs.” He doesn’t think much of the fanciful idea of converting the deli into a health farm now instead either. “If you concentrate completely on breakfast foods, and southern fried chicken, and salad rolls, that would be a huge part of the business, no matter what you try. You invest in different things and try out new products, but they just want their routine stuff. They say Irish people are adventurous when it comes to food but I don’t think so.
“The first signs I saw this year that people were cutting back were in wine sales. The Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday night bottle of wine, that seems to have stopped completely now.” That could be health consciousness too, I offer (lamely). “No it’s just money” laughs Will.

During the store’s refurbishment they cut back on the shop floor gondolas by almost 50%, bringing more focus to the deli – the move paid off when Hernon’s unexpectedly picked up a gong last year for Best Fresh Offering in a forecourt

During the store’s refurbishment they cut back on the shop floor gondolas by almost 50%, bringing more focus to the deli – the move paid off when Hernon’s unexpectedly picked up a gong last year for Best Fresh Offering in a forecourt

Wage woes and rising costs test small business

We discuss the economy in general and the cost of doing business in Ireland. At present, of great concern for Will and indeed most small businesses, is the cost of labour. “Wages are crazy. You’re paying your part time staff nearly as much as your full time staff. It’s the biggest thing for me, and I’d say for most small business, it’s crippling. For a business like mine, if your turnover for the week drops by 10%, you still need the same amount of staff on. You have to make up that shortfall somewhere else. So it’s a constant battle.”

This is on top of steadily rising energy costs facing retailers; Will has noticed the inflation of gas in particular this year. “It’s all up, energy, rates, you name it, and you’re here trying to draw customers in. It’s a full time job trying to get people in the door.”
In spite of all the doom and gloom, Will remains very positive about his business.

“I don’t think it’s that bad at all,” he says, in spite of the tough cost environment and reduction in annual trade owing to the current lack of tourists that would normally have flooded the South and West of Ireland. “We’re still doing well, it’s just something that has to be taken into account overall. It’s no harm sometimes to get a bit of a knock back – for everything, for business, personal spending. It kind of stabilises things and then, hopefully, it will grow again.”

In general, Will Hernon is quite positive about everything, which certainly makes for a breath of fresh air. Business is good and although he has no plans to expand himself, there is interest in the purpose-built showroom on his site, which will act as a further draw for Hernon’s busy, award-winning forecourt, on the famed bypass (that never was).

 

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