When it comes to convenience stores, every square inch of selling space is precious real estate. And when the inside of a store is fully merchandised, the only place left to go is the forecourt area.
Some convenience store retailers have always made good use of the forecourt area—whether or not it featured fuel pumps—to promote select items. Traditionally, fire wood and windshield washer fluid have been strong sellers during winter months, while cartons of soft drinks stacked high and priced right have been popular during summer. Bagged ice is often relegated to the forecourt, and it’s common to see large, self-serve ice freezers placed close to the front door of many stores.
Some convenience retailers have added propane tank exchange programs to the front of their stores. NOCO Express, a 30-store chain in New York State, is participating in the Blue Rhino program, which is currently available at 43,000 locations around the country. The program allows customers to drop off any empty propane tank and pick up a clean, filled Blue Rhino-branded tank for use with their gas grills or other propane appliances. When a store is about to run out of product, the manager can make one phone call and new tanks are quickly delivered by the local Blue Rhino representative.
“It’s an easy, turnkey program, and it doesn’t take up much space,” said Terry Messmer, NOCO Express merchandising manager.
Other convenience store retailers have developed and managed their own propane tank exchange programs, which are showcased in the forecourt. This includes On Your Way, the Muskegon, Michigan-based convenience store chain owned by Wesco Inc., and Kwik Trip, the 350-plus convenience store chain with headquarters in La Crosse, Wis.
A Michigan company that produces outdoor solutions for retailers, has created shelving made of high-density polyethylene that is often seen outside convenience, grocery and hardware stores. The shelves are light weight, easy to move and can be cleaned with a water hose.
They fit together like Lincoln Logs and give retailers a place to display bottles of wash solvent, oil and antifreeze or cartons of soft drinks. “You can merchandise everything very nicely and have everything faced the right way,” said Brian Link, On Your Way spokesman.
As an added bonus, items on the outdoor shelves bring customers into the store. “They have to go inside to pay,” Link said. “And they’ll usually buy a pop or a candy bar.”
On Your Way stores have installed permanent shelving in the forecourt area at all locations. “Every store has one rack, and some have two,” Link added.
In the summer, On Your Way’s outdoor shelves are used to merchandise cases of bottled water, which are priced to move quickly. In the winter, windshield wiper fluid occupies the same location. For operators concerned about theft, Link said incidents of customers walking away without paying are extremely rare.
According to John McHugh, spokesperson for Kwik Trip, the chain often uses the forecourt to promote seasonal items. “At this time of year, we sell two types of salt near the gas pumps—salt for water softeners and salt for putting on driveways,” he said.
Customers also can pick up jugs of windshield wiper fluid, and in tourist areas, they can purchase stacks of firewood. During the holiday season, customers can choose from a selection of natural holiday wreaths—though not Christmas trees—in the forecourt.
“We don’t promote the sale of a lot of merchandise outside the stores,” said McHugh, noting that Kwik Trip has recently constructed several new locations. “You don’t want to stack firewood in front of a nice, beautiful new store.”
Because Kwik Trip is well known for its hot food program, the chain carefully considers any item prior to placement in front of the store. “We’re heavy into food service,” McHugh said. “And we believe that a clean, neat appearance starts in front of the store. It impacts the perception of our foodservice program.”
Seeing Red at 7-Eleven
In January, 7-Eleven announced a unique, new forecourt marketing effort: $1-per-night DVD rentals from fully automated kiosks featuring patented rent-and-return technology. Known as redbox, the 7-Eleven DVD rental program was initially launched in Orlando, Fla., and Reno, Nev., but the 6,200-store chain based in Dallas plans to have the kiosks outside 2,600 stores by the end of 2009.
Each kiosk holds approximately 700 DVDs, representing as many as 200 different movie titles. Customers can visit the redbox 24/7 and use touchscreen technology to select their favorite movie. Payments are made by swiping a credit or debit card. Customers may keep the movie as long as they like for a $1-per-night rental fee, plus tax. They may return the DVD to any of 12,000 redbox locations in the U.S., including select McDonald’s, Albertsons, Wal-Mart and Walgreens locations, as well as 7-Eleven.
There are never any late fees when renting a movie from redbox. After keeping a DVD for 25 consecutive nights, the customer becomes the DVD’s owner and all rental charges cease. As an added benefit, customers can reserve DVDs online and pick them up at a redbox location of their choice.
7-Eleven is banking that customers will go for the redbox movie rental system over mail programs or brick-and-mortar stores because of speed, convenience and pricing.
“This is so much easier and cheaper than other DVD rental alternatives. It’s convenient, affordable and right outside a 7-Eleven near you,” said Raja Doddala, category manager for new business development at 7-Eleven, who added that redbox kiosks are not expected to go missing from the exterior of any store because they are securely bolted to the concrete.
The Entertainment Merchants Association has ranked redbox as the fifth-largest DVD rental company in the U.S. The company surpassed Blockbuster in the number of U.S. locations in 2007 and passed the 100 million movie rental mark one year ago.
If a retailer can run a successful, unstaffed DVD rental program from the forecourt, it seems obvious that there are many more opportunities to merchandise products in that area. “It’s a marketing space that’s probably underutilized,” On Your Way’s Link said of the forecourt.