By David Bennett, Senior Editor
When C.E. Taylor Oil Inc. was just getting started, family members who were intent on growing the business realized that while gas was the base of operations, retail sales would shape the future.
The Washington, Ind.-based Chuckles convenience chain consists of 29 locations throughout southern Indiana and western Kentucky. Today, the c-store brand is the driving force in the company’s expansion.
Chuckle’s store count increased by seven after acquiring two gas stations in Indiana and five others in Kentucky from a competitor last year. The deal complements Chuckles’ plans to grow in the marketplace—from the size of its new stores, to the way it’s engaging customers, to new foodservice strategies.
Charles Taylor, Jr.,president, said like other c-stores, Chuckles held off expansion plans when the U.S. economy declined in 2008. Now, with bigger competitors making bold moves, the ambitious convenience chain is writing a new chapter for the family’s memoirs.
“One of the advantages (of being a family), is we have the potential to move faster on things compared to our larger competitors. We always have been a flat organization, very lean, and that’s how we compete,” Taylor said.
IN THE BEGINNING
Taylor’s father—Charles Senior—worked for Shell Oil for 16 years before taking over a small jobber business in 1967, establishing what today is C.E. Taylor Oil. The jobber operation, which also managed gas station properties, distributed to three counties, which included the cities of Loogootee, Monroe City, Shoals and Vincennes.
Expansion began with the acquisition of jobbership in Gibson County, Ind. Over time, the company amassed a reasonable-sized portfolio through sheer hard work and determination, but realized that to compete it would have to diversify its services. The family launched its first convenience store in 1984, when it began converting two- or three-bay gas stations within the Taylor Oils portfolio into convenience stores.
As Taylor explained, the market niche existed to provide area residents with more than just gasoline.
“When we started converting, there were very few convenience stores,” Taylor said.
Part of its history is the development of the c-store name.
“All of our sites were Shell-branded until about eight or nine years ago when 40% of our sites became BP,” Taylor said. Three locations were unbranded, but soon one in Henderson, Ky. was branded Chuckles, in part because “C.E. Taylor was a mouthful and our coffee program was named Chuckles,” Taylor explained.
The name stuck with customers and since 2008, all of the locations have been rebranded.
Today, the Chuckles brand is key, appearing on the trucks that carry its unbranded fuel. That distinction has been important for the company to operate under its own guidelines. The last branded fuel sign came down about two years ago.
BLUE GRASS STATE
Chuckles is also moving forward with refurbishing its existing locations.
The planned expansion of Chuckles’ footprint in Kentucky will consist of inorganic growth from the acquisition of five Swifty Oil Co. sites, which took place more than a year ago. The five gas stations were part of seven locations acquired after the passing of Swifty Oil Co. founder Don Myers, considered by many in the region to be a pioneer in the fueling industry. Swifty, based in Seymour, Ind., had operated store locations in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. The company at one time operated 180 combination gas stations and c-stores under the Swifty banner.
One of the acquired locations is near the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. All of the locations were fitted with the Chuckles flag immediately and will soon be converted to the Chuckles c-store model.
“We haven’t done a ground-up for a few years now, so they will be a newer layout than what we’ve had in the past,” said Layne Stuckey, Taylor’s daughter and merchandise buyer for Taylor Oil.
All of the planned store locations will be reimaged and rebranded, boasting 3,500-4,500 square feet of space compared to the 2,800-square-foot units Chuckles has now. The floor plan will also incorporate new color and design elements. The Taylors have hired Dallas design firm Paragon Solutions to oversee the revamped stores.
Aside from bigger sites, Kentucky, it turns out, is full of potential. For example, it will allow the c-store chain to greatly improve its beer category.
“We can have cold beer in Kentucky. You can’t have cold beer in Indiana,” said Chase Taylor, logistics manager. “Something we’re planning with the new stores is to have cooler space for cold beer, and large walk-in coolers in locations we see fit. Locations in Indiana where we see potential for walk-in coolers will be fitted for the concept, with high hopes Indiana will change its current standing.”
Indiana law says beer has to be warm when sold in retail channels, except liquor stores.
Retailers currently are capitalizing on the extra cash customers are saving now that gas prices have dropped about $1 per gallon compared to last year. Lower gas prices have translated into more discretionary income for immediate consumption purchases.
At Chuckles the trend is supporting the company’s growth plans.
For example, the retailer offers foodservice at most of its locations. Those offerings include Subway, Noble Roman’s Pizza, Tuscano’s Subs and Quiznos. Chuckles is also analyzing where a proprietary foodservice program might fit in to service certain locations.
“With the changes that we’re looking at in regards to foodservice, we’re also looking at some self-distribution,” Taylor said. Such a change could involve the construction of a warehouse and commissary, which is being considered.
Even Chuckles’ signature coffee program received an overhaul with their John Conti Coffee Co. partnership.
“In the last year or two, we’ve incorporated flavors and extra burners, and we tried to have a rotation in the cappuccino machines of different flavors for the seasons,” Stuckey said.
In addition, Chuckles has been working on bolstering its loyalty program through the Chuckles Rewards Card via Zipline. Each time customers use the card they get a discount on future fuel purchases. The c-store chain has also launched a social media initiative to better capture customer engagement.
Not content to live in the past, the Taylor family is certainly embracing the future.
As a result, the Chuckles chain is coming along for the ride.