One area of UK retailing that could arguably do with a shot in the arm is the humble motorway service area, or MSA for short.
As someone who travels a fair bit for work and gets to visit places such as Lewes, Wakefield and Taunton for football purposes, I am worryingly familiar with a large number of MSAs around the country.
Regardless of who operates them, there is a crushing sense of inevitability about what awaits you when you pull off the motorway, park up and trudge into the building.
The usual suspects
There will be a shop selling mobile phone accessories. There will be an arcade with slot machines. There will be a branch of WHSmith selling scarecrows and wooden ducks. There will be a McDonald’s, or Burger King or KFC.
“My eye was caught by a sign for Gloucester Services. So far, so unremarkable, but the sign was augmented by the words ‘Farm Shop’. So, in I went”
Things however, have definitely taken a turn for the better in recent years. The food service offering has become more diverse with Indian, Mexican and Chinese food becoming available to complement the more standard high street names.
The spread of M&S and Waitrose outlets mean that food-to-go and food-for-later has improved exponentially, while the opening of MSAs such as Beaconsfield suggests that architects might have raised the bar when it comes to design.
The reason that I am bringing up this topic is that my 11 hours in the car dropping off the youngest at his student hovel in Plymouth was broken up with an unexpected discovery that brought joy to my heart. With the M4 at a standstill, my satnav directed me up the M5 instead.
A break from the norm
My eye was caught by a sign for Gloucester Services. So far, so unremarkable, but the sign was augmented by the words ‘Farm Shop’. So, in I went.
The building is beautiful: a curving sweep of Cotswold stone topped off with a verdant living roof.
The farm shop is incredible: an amazing range of local and regional food and drink – plus a smattering of non-food lines such as cookware and clothing – of which the crowning glory was a beautiful cheese counter and a fine-looking meat counter.
The merchandising is exemplary and the store design is flawless.
Alongside the farm shop is a restaurant that offers a mouth-watering array of freshly prepared hot and cold foods, plus a coffee and food-to-go counter for those with less time on their hands.
This place, run by the same family responsible for Tebay Services, is worth a visit for anyone in the food or retail industries.
Proof that even the more mundane parts of retailing can be elevated to the inspirational.
- Bryan Roberts is insights director at TCC Global