Several National Petroleum (NP) gas stations now offer you the convenience of buying everything from sandwiches, frozen peas and ice cream to mosquito coils and bleach, all while filling your gas tank. Among them, the Richmond Street service station, corner of Richmond and Park Streets, Port of Spain; St Christopher's service station (St Christopher's), Wrightson Road, Port of Spain; the Morvant Junction service station in Morvant; and the Diego Martin service station, Diego Martin Main Road, Diego Martin.
The increased variety of items is part of a strategy by NP to further diversify its business and increase its market share while improving customer service. NP's sole competitor is the United Independent Petroleum Marketing Co Ltd (Unipet).
St Christopher's is managed by 45 Corgar Ltd, the chairman of which is Scott Fabres. Business Day recently sat down with Fabres, NP CEO Bernard Mitchell and NP retail network manager, Luanna Taylor to find out more.
Opened in February 2016, St Christopher's sells a wide variety of food items, including freshly-brewed coffee and sandwiches made fresh each day in its kitchen on the first floor of the two-storey building.
Fabres said in addition to food, St Christopher's intends to become "the number one gas service station in TT" by offering all manner of conveniences. Chief among them, introducing a new version of their single-use gas pump gloves – the U-glove is to be replaced by the Grabbie glove, complete with a coupon redeemable at the service station.
"We're also going to be launching our very own gas card in the coming weeks. We should have everything set up for the St Christopher's fleet card management system by the end of October. We have a lot of customers asking for a fleet card system to help them control costs and for convenience too.
"We decided to partner with a local company, WiPay, to create a system to manage the transactions and paperwork. It's the same company which partnered with the Judiciary and ttconnect to launch CourtPay back in April."
Giving Business Day a little preview of how the system will work, Fabres said once the gas card has been pre-loaded with credit, "the use simply has to touch the card to our iPad – at the front of the store – select the pump their vehicle is at, and that pump will give them fuel. Simple, quick transaction."
While this fleet card system will be strictly for use at St Christopher's, several of the food and household items sold there are also now available at other NP stations.
Taylor said the decision to do so was "one of our new initiatives to provide an enhanced level of convenience to our customers. We purchased the freezers and branded them before stocking them with frozen items, as an addition to the categories we already have in our stores."
Products are one thing. Customer service and the aesthetics at NP-branded gas stations are another. Recognising the need to improve certain things, Mitchell said, "We'll be introducing a new training standard, this October, to improve the appearance of our service stations and the courtesy and efficiency of staff."
"Basically, it's a stepping up of the level of training we've been offering to service station attendants. Because service station staff are not our direct employees, we'll be offering them training and incentives through the dealers.
"We'll also be introducing a programme where people can vote for their favourite attendant. So we'll have a social media programme and an incentive-based programme that identifies the top attendants in the different stations."
At this time, there are 36 dealer-owned and operated service stations under the NP brand, out of 116 stations across the country.
As Mitchell explained to Business Day, this means the state-owned company must rely on "moral suasion" and the relationships it has developed over the years with each dealer in order to get them to maintain a certain aesthetic.
"We cannot 'force' the owners to make that investment, so we have, on an on-gong basis, dialogue with them to try to get them to improve the appearance of their service stations but we are dependent on them to make that investment in their own time. Some of these operators have been there ten, 15 years and we've built a relationship with them, so we (try to) use some moral suasion to get them to keep the service stations up to a particular standard."
Mitchell also said even if the site is owned by NP and operated by a dealer, the dealer still has some obligations to do what NP refers to as "a refresh".
Under this programme, a service station's buildings are given a fresh coat of pain and, in some cases, the signage is updated "to make sure the station looks decent and inviting to the public," Mitchell told Business Day.