Tuesday 30 October 2007

Why do all petrol stations look the same?

Ask any person in the street to describe a petrol station, they would inevitably include in their description a flat table-like canopy structure covering the pumps which faces a box like shop building. Apart from brightly coloured decorative surfaces trying to mask the similarity between different retail brands, respondents who answered as we suppose would largely be correct for the vast proportion of petrol stations worldwide are exactly that. But why?

As petrol station designers for many major networks across the world during the last 20 years we at Minale Tattersfield are asked this many times. Can the blame be put on our shoulders? Not entirely so we would argue as the flat boxy aesthetic had already emerged before our times in developed countries during the rapid personal vehicle ownership period from the early 60s. A more accurate answer would revolve around the economics of building a petrol station. If a retailer is to build a network of 10s, 100s or 1000s of petrol stations, there is no more economically better solution than to build petrol stations as if they were the cars that they fuel, that is by using bulk or mass production techniques where as many components as possible are standard and as minimum as possible are special and location specific. This is generally possible because all the key criteria for petrol station layout are universal such as the turning circle of vehicles. Therefore petrol stations are not only componentised like cars but totally modular like Lego or Meccano construction toys, being easily bolted in position to suit the particular needs of a location.

So does it matter? To the consumer apparently not. Market research generally finds that motorists say they are concerned primarily with convenient location, clean toilets and price. In reality motorists are not such price hawks as they say. More revealing still is that sales turnover figures dramatically increase after a significant redecoration of a petrol station. In the UK Shell noted a 20% increase after the RVI reimaging program of the early 90s. In less developed markets where the general standard of petrol station presentation is low, a newly decorated station may increase turnover far more dramatically, even 200% has been quoted. So yes it does matter to consumers how petrol stations look and if it matters to consumers then as any good retailer will say it matters to us to the petrol station industry too.

So if it does matter, what are we as designers and our clients the retailers themselves doing about the appearance of petrol stations. The trend during the last 20 years has been to continue the modular ethos further and create bright and cheerful decoration systems that simply bolt on to the light-weight canopy and building structures. Our first oil company client BP set the trend with an immensely successful and ground breaking design which coincided with the much publicized IPO in 1987. The key design feature for BP was a rounded bull-nose green aluminium composite decorative system applied on all their canopies which at night had a smart green neon strip running from end to end. Previously BP¡¯s canopies were the same as every one else at the time, a flat acrylic light box with green, yellow and white stripes plus a splash of red. At night the whole surface was back illuminated but invariably wasn¡¯t due to one or two ¡°Black teeth¡± or fluorescent tube failures. Not only did the new design look better, it cost less. So the key move forward for BP was

  1. To clean up a confusing colour palette and choose one distinct colour and make it their own.
  2. Create a more modern, automotive inspired shape for the decoration system and 
  3. As a consequence of using pre-coated factory applied painted metal surfaces for the bull-nose, create a different lighting system for night time appearance.

    The 3 ¡°Golden Rules¡± described above were subsequently applied to all the other major oil company re imaging programs, notably Shell in 1990 and Total soon after. Even after BP¡¯s introduction of the Helios logo and ¡°Beyond Petroleum¡± positioning statement, they have been true to the 3 rules. In fact green as a colour has evolved into green as a philosophy for BP or perhaps more accurately an aspiration. Nevertheless how one presents ones self or company to the world is now more than ever a priority board room topic. That is to say the value of a brand has been recognised as an equity of great value and in certain circumstance such as Coca Cola the most valuable asset the company owns.

    So if the main priority during the last 20 years has been about brand presentation, what of the flat table like canopies and box buildings? In fact the first significant deviation were the Mobil round ¡°Mushroom¡± canopies that sprouted around the world during the 1960s complete with cylindrical pump housing. The Mobil roadside retail brand has greatly diminished since but a number of ¡°Mushrooms¡± survive in Italy as part of the Q8¡¯s network. This scenario is symptomatic of an industry which is constantly in flux, merging, acquiring, selling, and rationalising¡­..which only further favours the flat boxy structures which can easily change their brand a number of times during their lifetime. Although the overwhelming quest to be different is a hard urge to suppress and it¡¯s not difficult to find ¡°One-offs¡± of various sizes and shapes dotted around the world. However they largely remain ¡°One-offs¡± because of the prohibitive financial consequences of breaking from what suppliers and sub contractors can easily build or more accurately familiar with building.

    Even renown architects Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava have design petrol stations for Repsol in Spain and Eko in Greece respectively. Our own company ventures into this ¡°Forbidden zone¡± include the dramatic cantilevered canopy design for Italiana Petroli whose then president demanded such a flagship statement to support a parallel ¡°Space age¡± advertising campaign. Once IP engineers and ourselves were left with the task of reimaging the whole network on a limited budget we soon ¡°Got real¡± and distilled the essence of the more futuristic design into something more practical.

    Our most recent foray into attempts at breaking the mould was at the behest of Reliance Petroleum in India who quite justifiably argued that even existing canopies could be further reduced in price since they had 2 canopy skins where 1 would suffice and had numerous decorative elements which were not required functionally speaking. Therefore why not minimalize the canopy design further but at the same time create a beautiful architectural shape that could be easily replicated. The single skin barrel vault solution that we created responded to that brief but frustratingly was too different to a conservative construction industry whose nervousness of change won the day.

    So it is likely the flat table-like canopies and boxy buildings albeit with pretty decoration will remain for a while longer. There are no breakthroughs in material science on the horizon which will significantly change matters. BP¡¯s solar PV curved glass canopies and wind turbines although worthy were more about communicating company aspirations and supporting nascent technology than building an economically viable petrol station. Car fuel technology is changing but that is unlikely to alter what we see above ground. The biggest change we foresee in the near future is really a continuation of the current trend towards tempting consumers to buy their groceries on the move with more substantial convenience stores on site offering a decent range of products and more significantly a higher profit margin for the retailer. There will be other changes but predominantly less visible such as energy efficient lighting and heating systems plus where appropriate recycling bins which cleverly not only offer an environmentally friendly service and communicate positive company attributes but attract customers to the site for other more profitable activities.

    October 2007 © Minale Tattersfield

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