By Bob Seng
For many years, particularly in the winter, I would make the trip from Cooperstown, N.Y.—our company headquarters at Busy Bee convenience stores—to our family condo on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Recently I made the trip again and observed changes that had taken place at c-stores over the last 25 years.
During this drive, I had the opportunity to review many convenience stores along the route. What I viewed was quite different than 1990.The trip was particularly interesting as I went through Pennsylvania because it seems to me that some of the most progressive c-store chains are located in this area.
Companies like Wawa, Sheetz and Rutter’s always seem to be on the cutting edge of new innovations. I’m sure that in many other areas of the country there are other companies that are just as advanced. On this trip, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit them as I did the ones that were on my route to Florida.
One time, I was invited out to the Midwest by Don Lamberti of Casey’s General Stores to review his operation. I found his stores to be very attractive and well merchandised. Also on my route south, I found many of the RaceTrac stores developed by Carl Bolch to be attractive and well merchandised.
Recently, I was asked to comment on the changes that have taken place in the convenience store industry in the last 25 years. As I considered the subject, many things floated across my mind.
Self-service gasoline became much more prevalent in the 1990s. This helped reduce the number of service stations, but helped increase the number of convenience stores selling gasoline. While this was influential in the development of the c-store industry, it was only one facet of it, and it alone was not responsible for the industry’s tremendous growth.
I considered all the things that have taken place since Convenience Store Decisions launched in 1990. Self-serve gasoline sped up the operation for people who were in a hurry. Since this was before pay at the pump, customers were required to enter the store to make a payment. At this point they were in full view of all the merchandise.
Customers now are afforded a convenient place to pick up household items that would be difficult to obtain if they had to walk through a large grocery store.
Newspapers and magazines were readily available as soon as you entered the store and emergency needs, such as health and beauty aids and medical supplies, were also stocked. This made it convenient for the people in the neighborhood or people driving by to stop in, and in a very short time, pick up the items they needed.
Still, in the back of my mind, these few examples didn’t reflect the biggest changes in the convenience store business as it exists today. There was something else that was part of the evolution of the c-store industry.
What really made it grow as fast and as large in as short a period of time as it did? There had to be an answer.
What made the convenience store industry grow from a building of 1,200 square feet with a single pump island and then two pumps, to five pump islands with four pumps on each and a tremendous canopy covering all the customers?
What caused our industry to redesign the convenience store to giant locations spanning more than 4,000 square feet that offer a multitude of fresh foods, fruit and gourmet coffees, in addition to all the traditional products that we sold in c-stores since the 1950s?
As I continued my drive through Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas I continued to look for “the answer,” and then suddenly there it was—quite difficult to find at first and yet so obvious. What had caused us to make all these fantastic changes: women.
By the time I had arrived at this momentous conclusion, I was into Georgia and headed for Jacksonville, Fla. The statement arose in my mind, causing me to think that women had made fantastic changes in the convenience store business.
I thought back to the mid-1960s. In fact, the year 1964 when John Roscoe installed the first self-service pumps at his Shortstop convenience store in Westminster, Colo.
I remember the difficulty we had in those days in getting women in particular to get out of their cars, go in and pay for gasoline and come out and pump the gasoline themselves. In most cases, either the service station attendant or the convenience store attendant went out to pump the gasoline and handle the transaction.
It took about another 10 years before the term self-service really became popular and the process now is universal. Between 1964-1987 self-service gasoline grabbed 80% of the entire U.S. gasoline market. What was more astounding is that women accepted self service. However, they didn’t become avid store customers until later.
As I passed through Jacksonville, I was still debating with myself as to whether my conclusion was correct. I had come to the decision that women had accepted the way we marketed gasoline, but thus far all I had established was that they had accepted self service.
I remembered my own store with women coming in to pay for gasoline but rarely shopping in the store unless it was an emergency. What did the industry do to change this situation and get women shopping inside the store?
We made our stores larger, more attractive inside and outside and changed the rest of what we were selling to include fresh made sandwiches, bananas, apples and other fruits, and in some cases a variety of coffees and teas.
In the meantime, some of the more aggressive operators were designing new stores that were more attractive and inviting to women, and creating a clean bright atmosphere both inside and outside the store. Women had taught us over of time what we needed to do to attract their business.
By the time I arrived in Boca Raton, Fla., it was pretty evident to me what we in the industry had actually accomplished. We had developed the type of facility in which women felt comfortable, and we had stocked it with products that they found desirable.
Our locations are now well lit, allowing women to feel more secure. The pumps are easy to use. Effective marketing programs convey the convenience proposition and new training programs and better hiring practices have helped us diverse our frontline staffing.
As usual, we learn from others’ successes and failures. We accept loyalty cards from local businesses that save gasoline customers up to $1 or more per gallon on gasoline purchases, as well as, in some cases, also having an in-house loyalty program. We have electronically-controlled gasoline price signs, as well as attractive point-of-sale signs, particularly around the gasoline islands.
Women demanded these changes before they would enthusiastically become our customers. Men probably would have settled for less.
It appears to me that if we look at the convenience store of today and we say “why are they more modern, clean, attractive, well managed and merchandised locations that provide easy ingress and egress?” The answer has to be that women demanded it in order to buy from us.
If not for women customers, we might still be dealing principally with men who would still buy their beer, cigarettes and the occasional magazine.
Listening to women, we will continue to make our stores more inviting and the menu will be much healthier than 25 years ago. Remember,that old saying, “Mother knows best,” still goes, and then some.
Bob Seng has worked in the convenience store industry for more than 68 years. He began his career at Shell Oil Co. in 1948 and founded the Busy Bee convenience store chain in 1967. Following the sale of the chain in 1990, Seng has served as a consultant and mentor to many current and former convenience store industry executives.