By Greg Parker, President and CEO, The Parker Cos.
The Parker Cos., has always had two things top of mind throughout our 39-year history —attracting and retaining customers and looking for new opportunities as we expand our growing group of 36 convenience stores.
Parker’s convenience stores continue to post some of the highest per-store profit margins in the industry, in part by adapting to change as quickly as possible.
I’m proud of our decisions to innovate. Like other c-store industry leaders, we’ve embraced new products, new store designs, which enhance our communities, and new technological advances to serve our customers. I think the future is unlimited for us all. But, I also spend a great deal of my personal time as a CEO on issues that can impede our growth—on local governmental infrastructures, which slow the new-store building process.
Local governments say they want to be ‘business friendly,’ and want new jobs, yet there’s sometimes a disconnect between the statement and reality. I’m working on that and currently serve as the chairman of the Savannah mayor’s Business Roundtable, established to help make Savannah the best city in the country in which to do business.
Many of us want to grow our companies; we know that our store model is spot on, so much so that now Walmart is trying to replicate what we figured out long ago was popular with consumers. But for smaller owners, without the fleet of lawyers to back us up, local government can be a struggle through the long construction and occupancy permitting process.
It used to be more of a real estate battle, who had a leg up on their competition on a piece of property coming on the market or who had the inside scoop on a major residential development.
You used to hire a real estate agent to drive around and collect information on potential neighborhoods—the entire process would take a few weeks. No more. Now, we make decisions also on the business climate by county.
The Parker Cos. also looks at its future customers from a new perspective. Over the years, I’ve changed my philosophy on store siting. It used to be an available corner with good traffic stats was of interest. But now, we also look at lifestyles and demographics of the census tracts around a site. We know people will need gas, but will they be attracted to our product mix?
And, to what degree should our company adapt its product mix for a specific store, is a new thought process we are pursuing.
The prism through which we make many of our store design, product and technology decisions is the working mother. She drives shopping and purchasing decisions. But we now have six stores in a county with a growing Hispanic population, for example. I want my team to think through this. We want to serve all our customers in a very meaningful, respectful way.
Other changes at Parker’s over the years have included the transition to becoming ‘data-centric,’ always focused on in-depth analysis of numbers, such as sales to purchase, SKU analysis and sales to gross profit.
And, Parker’s is constantly focused on technology innovation opportunities to improve the customer experience. Technology has provided our ability to analyze every aspect of our performance. We’re investing in the 3M Logic system digital cameras versus our analog equipment, currently, allowing analysis of the exact length of each customer transaction, and the customers’ shopping patterns in each store.
Parker’s has a new mobile app in development that will allow customers to complete their exterior or interior transaction from a smartphone, and also receive real-time offers while they are onsite, aimed at increasing the per customer average sale numbers, as well as the customer’s perception of Parker’s as a modern c-store leader.
Our philosophy is straightforward: Job one is to retain our customers. Job two is to sell them more. Job three, of course, is to attract new customers. But, if you don’t do a superior job on No. 1 and No. 2, you’re just pouring people through a bucket that has holes in the bottom.
Clearly, there has to be a 1,000% focus on the customer experience— every nuance—and it can be small things, such as a customer service button at every register. If more than two customers are waiting, another customer service representative pushes it to pull a team member out of the back. It’s a small thing to do, but it sends a big message to our employees of what we want to achieve.
Preparing for the Future
I also think you can’t be afraid to try new things; you have to take a risk sometimes to stay competitive. Certainly the level of competition is a change we’ve experienced over the past 10 years. For a period of time, we had the most attractive, largest stores in our area, with large parking pads and 12-16 fueling stations, but we’re watching our competitors try to replicate us.
We’re just opening a new $3 million, 4,500-square-foot store in Statesboro, Ga., where we are going to sell every product in our store through a drive-through window. The store features a wall of glass as the customers approach the window where they can see a large selection of products.
“This is not your classic ‘beer tunnel’ approach, or just a fast food window to sell fountain drinks. It’s a new way to serve customers. I can’t wait to see the data as it kicks into action.
With so many local, state and federal regulations, one of the other changes we have seen throughout the c-store industry is the need for increased investment in training of every employee hired.
We are continuing to tweak those curricula to reflect legal decisions, health standards, customer service and employee retention strategies aimed at helping all employees and managers be successful, while also protecting our company.
That includes providing a vision of an upward career path at Parker’s. To keep future managers in the pipeline, we created a Management in Training program that can lead to upward mobility, and is building a training facility with a replicated store.
Change is happening much faster today than even five years ago. It used to take years to build a brand. Today, with social media and digital news you can get a new marketing message out across your marketplace rapidly. Of course, this also means you can be hit with negative perceptions rapidly, as well. At Parker’s, we understand the importance of brand management and external corporate communications. We manage our brand daily, and with vigilance.
As cars become more fuel efficient, they have less need to come to one of our stores for gasoline, so we need to bring them and upsell beverages, food and snacks. That’s a major trend for all of us in the industry to address.
Lastly, our vendor partnerships are closely tied to our success as an industry. Because we are so focused on product, Parker’s focuses heavily on our supplier relationships and their commitment to our company to create the win-win—what we can learn from them and what they can learn from us. We share our data with our trusted suppliers, and they provide us with new product ideas to address what we’re both learning.
This is part of the changing focus areas we see for everyone in the c-store business to stay on the crest of the change wave.