Filling stations are rarely the kind of place we look forward to going: after all, buying fuel is what’s known as a ‘distress purchase’ – something that we have to buy, rather than something we want to buy.
Drivers are therefore a captive market, so many filling stations have, arguably, not put as much effort into wooing them as other retailers have in recent decades. Thankfully, that is changing, as a new wave in fuel retailing starts to spread across the UK. A range of new initiatives and an emphasis on offering more services to drivers is making those necessary stops more pleasant.
The first challenge that filling stations are overcoming is the shift to alternative energy sources. Although electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) still constitute a relatively small proportion of the new car market – figures from 2016 show that despite a 40.3% increase year-on-year, alternatively fuel vehicles (EVs and PHEVs) were only 2.8% of total new car sales – over the next couple of decades, they will play a much larger part in the UK’s driving landscape.
The question is where these EVs will be charged. Currently, estimates suggest that anything between 70% and 90% of EVs are charged at drivers’ homes. Government funding – in the form of Workplace Charging Scheme and the 100% First-Year Allowance for chargepoints – is also helping fleets adopting EVs to set up charging stations at corporate locations.
However, public charging will continue to be an important element of the EV charging mix. Many of these will be at shopping centres, retail parks and other leisure locations, but filling stations will also be installing rapid chargers over the next few years. It’s a trend that is already in evidence elsewhere in the world.
“There are areas where it’s clear that there is a growing demand for battery electric cars, particularly in California and parts of Holland, so we’re working on developing supercharging technology, too,” István Kapitány, executive vice-president of retail at Shell told the The Daily Telegraph last year.
Some filling stations will link up with existing energy suppliers, and new energy brands will also emerge. Kapitány also expects the stations themselves to invest in renewable energy to sell on to customers. Shell, for example, is currently trialling solar panel canopies in China, which will generate all the energy needs of a filling station.
It’s not only electricity, either: fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), running on hydrogen, will also be using filling stations. This is already starting in Germany, where Shell and Daimler are partnering to establish a hydrogen infrastructure for powering existing FCVs. There are eight sites at the moment, with plans for 400 locations by 2023.
The other change for future filling stations is the type of service they provide to customers.
Filling stations have already changed considerably, as Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, told us: “Filling stations have evolved from a kiosk offering some motoring accessories, to confectionary, tobacco and news (CTN), to the convenience store.
“And now the next wave is coming through, which includes fast food. Many filling stations now have good-quality coffee, burger outlets, Greggs, Subway – this is the next move.
“And of course, if people are sitting to eat, there will need to be free Wi-Fi. So people will be able to come in, have something to eat, have their car washed, catch up with email and, 30 minutes later, their electric car is recharged.”
Filling stations will therefore become multi-use destinations, perhaps more closely integrated with retail parks, or cinemas and entertainment locations. Customers will be offered a choice of activities, of which filling or recharging a car is just one.
And as Kapitány points out, filling stations will need to attract customers, even when they don’t need to buy fuel.
“We are seeing a huge number of people coming to service stations who are not filling up their cars. They are coming in to buy breakfast, to get a cup of coffee, to get their car washed. Their need for convenience retail is more frequent than their car’s need for fuel.”
This will be even more true when autonomous cars start to hit our roads in the next decade. “Autonomous cars do not mean, of course, that humans are not there,” Kapitány said.
“The cars are still taking people from A to B, so it’s very important that service stations are suitable for those type of cars – but also remain relevant for the people who are sitting in them.”
As this bright new future of driverless cars emerges, we can expect to see filling stations change, too. Clean, architecturally interesting, landscaped stopping places with a variety of fuelling options and a range of services will be what customers demand.
Who knows: drivers might even look forward to visiting them.