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Roadside Retail – are Motorway Service Areas (MSAs) destinations in their own right?

by | Jul 9, 2018

Over the past 20 years, roadside retail has transformed (outlined in my blog:  Are petrol stations shifting towards convenience?). Changes in regulations have helped MSA operators transform and broaden their offer.

The most recent regulations for MSAs include Circular 01/2008 which (for example) sets the distance between MSAs at a maximum of either 28 miles or 30 min, whichever is less. It also discourages MSAs from becoming ‘destinations in their own right’ to deter drivers from making additional short, local trips to MSAs which might interfere with the safety and flow of long-distance traffic.

Circular 01/2008 was technically superseded by Circular 02/2013, though they appear to have little overlap. Circular 02/2013, significantly, removed the phrase ‘destination in its own right’. This has allowed MSAs to add as many facilities as they have capacity for and helped transform some of the MSA offering.

Over the past 20 years, MSAs have transformed, partly in response to this regulatory change, but also due to a shift towards convenience. Currently, the three largest UK MSA operators are Moto, Welcome Break and Roadchef.

  • Moto have continued to vary their catering offer and introduced Greggs, Costa and Chow, El Mexicana and Arlo’s to many of their MSAs and offers Burger King at all of their sites. Moto replaced all their own shops with WHSmith franchises and successfully introduced M&S Simply Food.
  • Welcome Break redesigned most of their food courts throughout 2015 and added operators like Subways, Tossed, Papa John’s Pizza and Harry Ramsden’s to their offer. Welcome Break also introduced Waitrose and WH Smith and rolled out café drive-thru operations wherever possible. Pret A Manger opened their first outlets at Welcome Break in 2016 and formed a partnership with Roadchef at the end of 2017.
  • Roadchef, the third largest operator, partnered with operators such as McDonalds, Costa, Pizza Hut and WHSmith, and signed a deal to open at two sites with the upmarket fast food chain Leon in summer 2017.

Regulatory changes and the recognition by MSA operators that customers are no longer satisfied with beans on toast and soggy chips has led to a transformation of MSA offers. Healthier, more high-end food options including M&S, Waitrose and Leon have become a welcome addition for the changing expectations of customers, helping to increase the amount spent on site. Additionally, drive thru operators have increased their presence, with Costa rolling the concept out on 27 sites and Greggs opening the second site in Leicestershire in June 2018.

More recently, Gloucester Services became the first ever to be listed in the ‘Good Food Guide’. The ‘Farmshop’ offers high quality food, of which 80% is sourced locally. In future, MSAs are expected to evolve further with the introduction of exciting and unique operators which will distinguish them as destinations in their own right.

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