This week saw the introduction of Stage 4 COVID restrictions in Greater Melbourne (including a night-time curfew) and Stage 3 restrictions in the rest of Victoria which will create significant challenges for fuel retailers in the face of likely lower revenues. Tightening border restrictions introduced by NSW, South Australia and Queensland have also created challenges for fuel distribution businesses – at a time when the industry was just starting to recover from the volume destruction that occurred during April and May 2020.

It is fair to say that these new restrictions have been introduced quickly. They have created inadvertent consequences on business operation and worker movement. Resolution of these issues has required all of us to demonstrate a degree of patience and tenacity but they are being resolved as they are identified, as government and regulators work proactively with industry to chart a course though this unprecedented time.

“We have been working to resolve a number of business issues that could have been avoided with better planning, but we acknowledge that the immediate management of the health risks has rightly taken the first and highest priority of Government- and so far, we have been able to resolve most issues with State Government authorities fairly and quickly.”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

One of the pleasing aspects of the recent Victorian lockdown has been the government recognition of the vital role our industry plays in keeping our economy moving by allowing all fuel businesses (and their service providers) to continue to operate.

“Such an accommodation, however, is not an inalienable right. It is, in fact, a privilege. It comes with significant responsibility – and in many cases a legal obligation – for our industry to manage our operations in a manner that reduces the risk of COVID 19 transmission to both our customers and our staff”, said Mark.

COVIDSafe Business Plans are required in Victoria and NSW and it is vital that all fuel businesses – distribution, retail and support services – in these States comply with these guidelines. ACAPMA has developed template COVIDSafe Plans and support resources and COVID posters, along with a fuel industry specific online COVID Safety Awareness training programme that is free to all Members, to assist industry in complying with these requirements.

ACAPMA is liaising with State Governments around the clock. Changes in business operating requirements and border restrictions are being documented and communicated as they occur, via ACAPMA’s regular COVID-19 Roundup email updates. Member businesses are advised to check in with these updates carefully to ensure that they remain fully compliant with any changes in COVID-19 restrictions.

But while the COVID-19 pandemic is imposing new requirements on fuel businesses, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is also creating a significant opportunity for all of us in Australia’s fuel industry. That is, the opportunity to redefine our relationship with the broader community on two fronts.

The first opportunity offered by COVID-19 is in the area of trust. The community has, in its response to the pandemic, placed its trust in our industry to operate responsibly to minimise transmission and help reduce case numbers, while delivering our vital service.  As an industry we must rise to the high standard of trust that is placed in us.

We must therefore ensure that the way we transport fuel around the country and across State borders is safe and responsible. This doesn’t just mean complying with permit requirements.  Ideally, our fuel distribution businesses need to look beyond mere compliance and implement procedures that ensure tanker drivers are regularly made aware of the need to maintain social distancing, that they monitor their contact with others, and do not come to work if they have even the slightest symptoms.

The same goes for fuel retail businesses in terms of ensuring that staff are fit and well to be at work and are ensuring that all surfaces, and particularly customer contact surfaces, are regularly cleaned and sanitised. All customers entering the store must comply with social distancing and maximum and practical safe shopper limit requirements, to minimise the risk of virus transmission at our facilities.

The second, and perhaps more significant opportunity that COVID-19 offers, is the opportunity to reset our value proposition with the Australian community. That is, the way we are valued by the Australian community, particularly on the retail side of the industry.

Service stations are traditionally seen as a place where Australians purchase fuel and possibly some ‘chips, chocs and drinks’ on occasion. Large and small retailers have long offered (and recently even expanded their proposition significantly to include) grocery items, prepared food, coffee and barista style coffee. Yet most people still perceive the local ‘servo’ to be just a place you go to buy fuel.

ACAPMA’s Monitor of Fuel Consumer Attitudes over the past 6 years has shown that the majority of consumers still don’t recognise that we do more than just sell fuel. Those that do, largely perceive that our non-fuel products are too expensive. These comments were again reflected in the 2019 research (See https://acapmag.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/ACAPMA-2019-National-Monitor-of-Fuel-Consumer-Attitudes-V1.0.pdf)

“But in recent months, I have spoken with people and radio announcers who have remarked that they decided to go into the servo because it was local and small, to get their essential items – thereby minimising risk of the virus – and that they were pleasantly surprised at the quality and affordability of the food and grocery offerings available.  It is certainly a very pleasant change to discuss the vital role that local service stations play in their local community in the media, as opposed to the usual media questions about petrol prices”, said Mark.

In many ways, our industry now has the opportunity to redefine our value proposition to the community as being: their local store – one that sells fuel, grocery items and great food at an affordable price in a convenient location.

This change in the value proposition will mean that we need to be able to support our front line staff and empower them in creating a positive customer experience, given that we are likely to be seeing a greater proportion of customers who don’t simply wont to process a fuel transaction.

“If we are able to reinforce our expanded product offering with high quality and friendly customer service – at a time when everyone is facing the general sadness and trepidation that has characterised a COVID world – then we can build a relationship that will put us into a stronger position once we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis”, said Mark.

To capitalise on this opportunity we need to do more than just a quick smile (particularly when some of us are wearing masks as a standard now). We need to take the time to see our customers through the lens of them being an individual, who is likely to be anxious in the face of everything that is going on – to remember the human that is ‘behind’ the customer.  It means connecting with them, albeit for just 15 seconds, to recognise them as an individual and provide them with some human contact (socially distanced of course) and encouragement.

“I accept that this may all sound a bit fluffy, but people (including us) are hurting right now and there is an opportunity for us to be part of helping them hurt just that little bit less by creating a safe haven in one of the few remaining business environments that continue to trade with face to face contact”, said Mark.

By way of an example, there is fast food company in the USA that has mastered the customer experience. They have produced a short 3 minute video that captures the very essence of how we might change our relationship with our customers in this current crisis; see below or view here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2v0RhvZ3lvY

“I encourage every business to share this video with their staff and then talk about how they might make their business just that little bit more ‘human’, that little bit friendlier, with a view to creating relationships where customers keep returning just because we were there for them during Australia’s 2020 COVID-19 Crisis”, said Mark.

So COVID-19 is a massive challenge to the industry but it is also an opportunity for the fuel industry to shine.

There is some evidence that the community is seeing us in a different way during this crisis. Strong relationships are built in times of adversity and the current situation is perhaps the most challenging any of us will face in our lifetime.

If we can maintain the high standards in wholesale and retail that have put us in a position of trust, and look beyond our own situation in the retail side and reach out to our customers in a genuinely human way, then perhaps we can change the way Australian’s see our industry in the future.

“This is our time to shine – let’s not fritter it away”, concluded Mark.

ACAPMA