We all know Electric Vehicles (EV’s) are coming. The government has decreed that the sale of petrol and diesel (ICE) vehicles will be cease in the UK after 2030. Most of the focus of attention has been on whether the cost of EV’s is going to come down sufficiently, whether we can generate enough electricity to meet the additional demand, if the charging infrastructure will be in place and if the mining of critical minerals for batteries, such as Cobalt and Lithium, is going to be able to meet demand and be done sustainably.

But there are some other key considerations about an EV world that we need to consider. These cars are not just using different fuel types, they are potentially going to make changes to our lifestyles and environment, and I’m not just talking about the cleaner air we will experience with the reduced pollution. The charging infrastructure and where we charge our new EV’s raises questions about retail too.

Just recently I co-presented a session on this subject with fellow retail consultant, Ian Scott, to a group of retail experts with the aim of discussing this topic and it raised some interesting questions about the changing face of forecourt retail in particular, but other aspects of retail too. Back in 1970 there were 37,000 petrol forecourts in the UK, but by 2015 there were just 8,500. Boston Consulting group predicts that globally we could see another 25% of forecourts close by 2035, I think it could be more and sooner. The number of cars on the road hasn’t declined and isn’t likely to anytime soon, so how is refuelling going to change?

Well, 95% of current EV drivers in the UK charge their cars at home and just over a quarter also charge at work. This combines two of the key selling points of EV’s, convenience (you “re-fuel” while your car is parked where it normally would be most of the time anyway) and cost ; charging your car at home overnight on an off-peak tariff could cost just 6p/kWh compared to close to 40p/kWh on a public rapid-charger, whilst charging at work might even be free. To put that in perspective at 6p per kWh that equates to c.1.5 pence/mile whilst a typical UK  petrol car, averaging 38.8 mpg, costs 13.5 pence/mile in fuel.

Would this mean the end of the forecourt then? Well obviously not for three reasons:

  • ICE cars will still be with us until 2050 probably as the ban on new car sales doesn’t mean a ban on existing cars
  • More than 50% of UK households will not have access to on-street charging close to home
  • Drivers will continue to cover longer distances on occasion that EV’s will not have the range to cover in a single charge

However, it could mean a radical change to forecourts. Whilst battery charging points have the potential to get quicker and quicker and car batteries will accept faster charges, realistically most rapid chargers will still require drivers to pull over for much longer than it takes to fill a car with petrol. Even if that is only 10-15 minutes for a rapid-charge top-up, that is longer than the 2-3 minutes an ICE car requires to fill up.

Several key options appear to make sense:

  • Hybrid forecourts that combine some rapid chargers with existing traditional fuel pumps dispensing “dinosaur juice” as my son likes to refer to it.
  • Dedicated EV forecourts such as the flagship one opened recently by Gridserve in Braintree, Essex
  • Chargers at other destinations with natural dwell time, from supermarket and shopping centre car parks to hotels, pubs and public car parks

How will these impact retail? In the forecourt world these mean more space required, both for vehicles that need to park up for longer and for their drivers who would rather not sit in their cars whilst they charge and will spend if given the right opportunities to do so. At this point retailers will need to understand their audience and not make the mistake of simply assuming that they are just another car driver.

The profile of the EV driver is ever-evolving but they are currently over-represented by middle aged men who are above average earners and often early adopters. Serving up the predictable drivers’ format of Costa and a convenience store, as Gridserve has done, therefore seems like a missed opportunity. If you’re driving an EV because you care about the environment and sustainability, then Starbucks and Costa probably won’t float your boat, so maybe they’d rather see an independent coffee house installed along with a farm-shop style outlet much like those found at the UK’s two alternative motorway services, Gloucester on the M5 and Tebay on the M6.

Meanwhile retailers close to major A roads and motorway junctions might benefit from providing chargers and drawing in passing traffic that might not otherwise stop, especially if they can also provide the holy trinity of food, drink and decent toilets. Chargers in Supermarket car parks are currently underused as most EV owners at the moment charge at home and shop quite close to home. But as adoption increases and there are more people unable to charge at home, then the opportunity to charge up while you are doing your weekly shop could be a golden opportunity and those retailers who are ready with the right infrastructure will gain an early advantage.

Selecting the right charging option though will be critical. Sainsbury’s in Nine Elms London, for example, has 26 7kWh chargers that are free of charge to use by shoppers. That means you would get enough charge in a 40 minute shop to drive about 18 miles. Not a great deal of help and unlikely to be much of an incentive. A Morrisons offering use of a 50kWh charger, as many now do, that would give you 132 miles of charge in the same time at a reasonable cost, might have much more pulling power to EV drivers.

So more EV’s on the road is likely to mean less forecourts, but maybe better quality ones with environments that are attractive to dwell a little longer in, whilst other retailers might have an opportunity to gain competitive advantage by offering the right kind of convenient offering to EV drivers. Either way, buckle up, there’s lots of change afoot, hopefully it will be very positive.

Neil Russell-Bates, Hilltop Sustainability

See my original Linkedin article here.

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