Several new motorway service stations are expected to open on the Emerald Isle over the next couple of years, and leading petrol retailers such as Statoil [STL.OL], Esso and Texaco would be foolish not to seize this fresh opportunity to capture a larger share of the Irish market for both fuel and non-fuel products.
Unusually, Ireland has never had any motorway service stations. The country has been dominated by A-roads, with the motorway network being quite limited. Until recently the longest stretch was a mere 72km, with lorries and trucks simply stopping in nearby towns for rest bite. Currently motorists along the east coast economic corridor have the M1 linking Dundalk and Dublin, and the M50 in the southeast.
However, with considerable investment being undertaken in the country's road infrastructure, the advent of a sizeable motorway network means that drivers will in future face the prospect of traveling a lengthy distance without a convenient pit stop. With this in mind, property developers have already sought planning permission for a total of four motorway service stations, all in Northern Ireland initially. Yet, so far, no service station operators and petrol suppliers have been recruited, though discussions with potential operators of the four new sites will begin in September according to reports in the trade press.
Some of the UK's service station operators have responded skeptically to the opportunity, claiming that a preponderance of commuters and a lack of long distance motorists lessens its appeal. However, the opportunity for fuel providers is huge, especially if they have a strong convenience offering. Commuters are the perfect audience; the type of segment that will pick up dinner and an additional five to ten items on the way home from work.
Moreover, the opportunity is potentially better than on many sites across the Irish Sea. England's Highways Agency imposes strict retail restrictions on its motorway sites, with the Irish authorities being less stringent. In Ireland all involved parties can afford to create something fresh and different from the traditional UK model - after all, with British service stations voted the worst in Europe in an AA backed survey, they don't exactly exhibit best practice. With such a huge opportunity approaching, Ireland's key players, especially Statoil and Exxon [XOM], are expected to partake in the negotiations: they would be crazy not to.