Shell global retail refresh

In 2011, leading energy company Shell appointed Shopworks to refresh its global forecourt retail concept. Following a successful pilot, Shopworks helped Shell to develop its strategy and manual, then roll-out the approach to a range of countries.

The challenge facing the client was to position a credible ‘food on the go' offer at the heart of its retail strategy, whilst still being relevant to valuable fuel customers.

Historically Shell's approach to retail was focused on the needs of refuelling customers; stores were designed to support ‘speed and ease', which allowed customers to refuel and leave as quickly as possible. As a result, retail was limited mainly to convenience and impulse categories.

Shell had observed the growing global trend of customers consuming ‘food and drink on the go', and its own research had identified that the most valuable fuel customer segment was also most likely to adopt this shopping behaviour.

Consequently Shell commissioned Shopworks to carry out shopper research to understand the attitudes and behaviour of Shell's customers and then develop a retail strategy.

In responding to the client's brief, the Shopworks team focused on two key areas:

  • Shopper behaviour and retail strategy
  • Store layout and category management.

Shopper behaviour and retail strategy

To inform Shell's retail format strategy, we conducted several formal pieces of customer research, including:

  • Traffic flow analysis - where thousands of customers were studied in store, to understand how they shopped and navigated stores
  • Qualitative interviews - in-depth conversations with customers on site enabled us to understand their attitudes and shopping needs.

This research input identified three key shopping missions that directly led to a new approach in store design and layout - delivering a better and more relevant retail experience for customers.

Three core shopping missions

1.      Re-fuel only customers were found to "just fill up" - having little interest in browsing, but being likely to respond to prominently-displayed impulse categories on route to the counter. Their journey needed to be intuitive, easy and supported by merchandising that was clear and attention-grabbing.

2.      Customers with a "need a break" mission were open to browsing as they wanted something to eat or drink but usually hadn't decided what. As this is an emotional and less impulsive decision, food credentials had to be communicated early and in an enticing way. The food offer was persuasively advertised outside the store and full-height glazing meant food cues like seating were visible from outside. A strong "food to go" destination towards the back of the store encouraged deeper browsing.

3.      Customers with a "planned purchase" typically would not consider other categories until finding what they wanted; so key destination categories had to be clearly presented, making them quick to identify. Urgent destinations like the wc also needed to be prominently visible upon entry to the store.

Customer journey

As well as separate shopping mission needs, customers also have different requirements at each stage of their in-store journey. For example:

  • At a distance they need to identify that the store sells what they require
  • On approach, "need a break" customers want to see a credible food offer.

To ensure customers remained engaged throughout their store visit, each stage of their journey was carefully planned to deliver the right message, visual cue or product display that responded to the shopping missions.

Defining a new customer facing layout and merchandising strategy

The Shopworks traffic flow analysis results revealed key insights into shopping behaviour and traffic patterns. This helped us create a store layout that expanded browsing opportunities, and allowed customers to shop more of the store seamlessly.

From ‘straight to counter' to intuitive flow

Our research showed a strong customer instinct to walk straight to the counter and leave. Years of facilitating ‘speed and ease' had reinforced this automatic behaviour in customers, and we realised that disruption was needed to expose customers to wider browsing opportunities and shop more effectively.

We solved this problem by introducing a swing gate and seating near the counter area. This created a circular store flow, helping to break the habit of customers turning immediately towards the counter on entry. We were careful to make sure the new area felt intuitive to customers - appropriate category adjacencies, communication placement and store design were key to this element.

Later qualitative research showed that customers found the new stores easier and more pleasant to shop, but had maintained the perception of "speed and ease".

Driver categories and category mix

Our traffic flow analysis also showed that certain key categories were instrumental in drawing customers, and could be used to influence the path customers took on their shopping journey. Category placement and merchandising within the customer journey meant we could make the store more pleasant to navigate.

With the shift to ‘food to go', we completely reappraised the client's product categories. This included reviewing the most important categories for each shopper mission, determining how to display products to maximise customer appeal and optimising the profitability of the range in line with sales data. The Shell formats team is continuing this work and expanding it beyond the UK.


Shopworks repeated post-trial traffic flow and qualitative research to benchmark the changes against pre-trial performance. This meant we could evaluate specific causes of change and make pinpointed recommendations from the insights gained.

The pilot results were very encouraging, with a massive shift towards food sales, a sizeable increase in overall browsing, sales and margin and overwhelmingly positive response from customers to the layout, design and look and feel of the site. We also found that these initially positive results continued to improve the longer the store traded.

Shell UK has since rolled out more than 200 stores in the new format since the pilot phase. Shopworks supported Shell in expanding its retail format to larger highway and motorway format sites. This included Cobham, the UK's largest motorway fuels retailer, which places greater emphasis on longer food breaks and local formats with a focused grocery offer for top-up shopping.

Global adaptation

After the pilot, Shopworks was commissioned to carry out pilot studies in markets such as Germany, Holland, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Malaysia.

Even in markets where we perceived there would be many similarities, cultural differences in customer behaviour helped us to perfect the category model and the way products were displayed. For example, in the UK there is a much larger appetite for pre-packaged sandwiches and this is often sold with a drink and pack of crisps; whilst in Germany fresh bread was more significant and crisps sold in larger packs as a separate snacking mission. This kind of difference can affect store category placement, and to a lesser degree the impact upon the store design. Consequently, the way in which food and drink are delivered locally needs to vary according to cultural context.

Shopworks is continuing to work with Shell to develop its new ‘global shop format' concept and adapt this to work in different markets.

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