By David Bennett, Senior Editor
In one way, convenience stores are like suspects in a police lineup. Usually, it’s distinguishing features that make them the most noticeable.
Whether it’s following the hottest foodservice trends, regaling patrons with a super car wash or offering superior merchandising, doing something different from the competition can sometimes make all the difference.
In that spirit, Seasons Corner Market, based in Cranston, R.I., is bringing a fresh approach to convenience retail in certain parts of New England. With dynamic floor plans, a sharp eye for customer service and a commitment for rallying its workforce, Seasons is making waves in and around the Ocean State.
STRUCTURED FOR GROWTH
Andrew Delli Carpini, CEO and authorized agent of Colbea/Eastside Enterprises LLC, has been on the ground floor of Seasons’ ongoing development.
Colbea Enterprise owns, operates and supplies Shell-branded products throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts through a network of 110 company-operated sites, dealer sites and open-dealer sites. Colbea is a joint venture between Motiva Enterprises LLC and East Side Enterprises LLC.
Colbea expanded its operation in 2007, after acquiring Motiva’s interest in 34 Shell-branded retail sites in Rhode Island. By 2010, company holdings exceeded 100 locations, with a growing presence in the Massachusetts and Rhode Island markets.
Since that time, Colbea has expanded its holdings in the region, while beginning to bolster the Seasons brand. While the c-store chain has experienced growing pains like any other fledging businesses, Delli Carpini said the c-store is ready to extend its reach to other parts of Massachusetts—where it’s been since 2005—as well as New England.
Colbea decided that to close the gap on established c-store competitors in the region, a new concept was needed to reinvigorate its retail image.
“Our legacy sites did not have a c-store brand associated with them; therefore we were lumped into all the other fueling stations in our market. With the implementation of the Seasons brand, we are able to differentiate ourselves from everyone else,” Delli Carpini said. “We spent many years developing the brand, from the name to its appearance, both inside and out.”
The new sites tend to allow for additional SKUs and unique products—often found in higher-end markets. Seasons strived to create an environment in which customers would feel comfortable spending extra time shopping. In addition, the interior of the prototype c-stores were custom designed to include rustic wooden floors, a bright color scheme for the interior walls and specialty tile that lines the modern bathrooms.
Additional registers were added and forecourts were modernized with technological advances like Applause TV systems by Gilbarco Veeder-Root, which were installed to entice patrons to venture inside.
Though its hasn’t launched a proprietary loyalty program yet, Seasons offers the Fuel Rewards Network program.
Rhonda Cain, director of operations for Seasons, said part of shoring up the Seasons model was developing both the operations and merchandising teams to become the central pillars of the business. Once that foundation was established, both teams have been able to move in the same direction in terms of strategy and purpose.
“How we look at this is merchandising develops the strategies, and operations executes the plan to ensure we meet the needs of the customer,” Cain said.
Apparently, customer expectations are being met as business is booming enough to support additional growth for Seasons Corner Market—and not just in the area of operation it now calls home. In fact, Delli Carpini expects the company to make a push into bordering states in the next 3-5 years.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Of course, coming up with the right logo and name to highlight the new brand was imperative.
However, coming up with a good business name can be a complicated process. Some experts say that choosing a name that appeals not only to you, but also to the kind of customers you’re trying to attract shouldn’t be done in haste.
The Seasons name didn’t arrive in a day, nor was the moniker drawn out of a hat. Executives at Colbea looked at what feature most identifies natives of New England and came up with a something that seemed natural. Because New England has four distinct seasons and is truly a year-round destination, it is the distinct change of seasons that native New Englanders often like best about living in this part of the U.S.
That’s how the c-store name came about, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Believe it or not, the development of the name was probable one of the hardest parts of this journey,” Delli Carpini said. “We wanted a name that conveyed our history and where we came from, moreover a brand that New Englander’s could relate to and feel as though it was their own. With that in mind, we went through hundreds of names before finally all agreeing on the Seasons Corner Market brand.”
Unlike most fledging c-store operations, Colbea has legacy retail sites at its disposal. Whether the locations are candidates for a remodel or a rebuild, an objective analysis of the site is performed. Besides its physical footprint and the surrounding commercial environment, the age of the building is also evaluated.
“We look at a facility and if it’s within 15 years of being capitalized, we’ll go in and remodel it, which includes tearing a building down to the studs,” Delli Carpini said.Of course, no site undergoes construction without a permit. And at some locations it is tougher to achieve that than at others.
Rhode Island is known for many things, including the “New York System” wiener—smaller hot dogs served on steamed buns with mustard, meat sauce, chopped onion, celery salt—coffee, milk and pizza strips. However, the Ocean State is also known for stringent business development policies, which mirror other communities in New England.
Delli Carpini explained this part of the New England region is challenging, whether it’s finding large geographic footprints to develop or being able to be granted final approval for zoning and planning designs.
“We had one project that took four zoning meetings and four planning board meetings to get approved,” Delli Carpini said. “The good thing is we got approved, which does not happen all the time. We have spent significant amounts of money, just to be told no on a project that we felt would have been great for the community.”
However, once community planners are satisfied and the new Seasons location is finally completed, customers usually appreciate the new c-store experience.
“Nobody confuses what was there to our store when we open up again,” he said. “It’s nice to see the reaction of the customers when they walk in.”
One of the operational slices Seasons is looking at full-bore is foodservice.
“We have tried to partner ourselves with some of the best co-brands in the market. A majority of our sites have a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Mary Lou’s or a Honey Dew, which are all well recognized brands in New England,” Delli Carpini said. “We have also developed a proprietary relationship with a local catering company to provide us with fresh salads and sandwiches in our open-air coolers. We also offer many additional health offerings from yogurt cups to fresh fruit. We do feel that today’s customers are looking for higher-quality offerings in a nicer environment, so everything we do is to instill assurance in our guests’ minds.”
As much as self-serve coffee is popular at Seasons, it’s the opposite for fountain beverages.
“Fountain has always been a challenge in the New England markets, since our customers have tended to gravitate towards the cold vault rather than the old soda machine, but that trend seems to be changing a little with the development of today’s new fountain choices,” Delli Carpini said.
Rather, Millennials seem more interested in the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, a mega-machine that dispenses 100-plus drink choices and ice by accessing a touch screen. “We’re potentially looking at rolling those out at our store sets also,” Delli Carpini said.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Seasons is committed to maintaining a social media presence, especially as it wants to appeal to younger patrons, especially Millennials.
Seasons is constantly involved with social media campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms
“We have a very diverse customer base so we strive to reach them all with a strong and growing presence on all major social media platforms,” said Sandra Delli Carpini, Seasons’ director of marketing and merchandising. “All of these methods generate positive exposure for our company and open up an ongoing dialogue with our customers.”
Interaction with potential customers is a key tool for relationship-building, the director said.
“Because customers enjoy their experience at Seasons Corner Market so much, they are very enthusiastic to share their experience with their friends and family on social media. When customers contact us, we make it the highest priority to reply to them immediately and thank them for their business,” she said.
“We also offer monthly contests, giveaways, events and fundraising participation to drive additional customer engagement. We do a lot of cross-promotional social media campaigns with neighborhood organizations, extraordinary regional brands and popular national brands.”
Hedging its bets when it comes to customer outreach, the Seasons marketing team doesn’t just rely on social media strategies to get its message out. Michael Schiemer, the company’s digital marketing manager, said that the c-store chain also sends out a free Seasons Corner Market newsletter to individuals who aren’t on social media and don’t download mobile applications.
For patrons who do prefer apps, Seasons is generating good returns with its mobile version.
“We actually just launched our Seasons Savings mobile application a few months ago as a soft launch. We’ve had very positive feedback from customers and consistent use without us having to pay for any advertising,” said Sandra Delli Carpini. “It provides our customers with another valuable tool to improve their shopping experience and increase their savings. Customers can easily find the closest Seasons store, check our monthly specials, access their fuel rewards account information, view gas prices and much more.”
Just as the c-store is converting operational programs and real estate sites into conceptual components that meet Seasons’ goals and mission, company managers and decision makers place the most emphasis on the resource that is sometimes the most challenging to qualify: its workforce.
It’s standard policy that when the company converts a legacy store—usually part of its Shell-branded portfolio— to its Seasons model, existing employees are interviewed to see if they are the right fit for the new brand. In most cases, employees remain and are retrained on heightened expectations. Once the re-training is completed and the employees are successful, they are paid a premium for remaining a Seasons employee.
That’s before any Seasons customer walks through the door for the first time.
“We are always searching for great employees to join our team,” said Colbea’s CEO Delli Carpini. “We are very aggressive in our recruiting efforts and spend a great deal of time assuring we are getting the best possible candidates.”
Once employees are on board for the duration, learning processes and serving customers as part of the Seasons team, it’s not the end of the company’s workforce commitment.
“We offer all the standard health and retirement benefits, along with the ability to grow in an expanding company. Our managers, assistant managers and district managers all are incentivized to perform, and we like nothing better than giving out big checks at our quarterly meetings,” Delli Carpini said. “The one thing that I take most pride in is that we try to treat our teammates as family members; none of this would be possible without all of them.”
AIMING FOR THE BIG GUNS
Delli Carpini explained that not only are the new Seasons sites drawing more customers, but also the attention of larger c-store competitors. Using the lesson of David and Goliath, Delli Carpini said the situation isn’t that the smaller Seasons can’t compete effectively—it just means the c-store is obviously doing something right.
“I think it’s a good position to be in,” he said.
At a Glance: Seasons Corner Market
Owner and operator of Seasons Corner Market, Colbea Enterprises LLC, is a joint venture between Motiva Enterprises LLC and East Side Enterprises LLC.
Motiva is a supplier of Shell-branded fuel, and all of Colbea Enterprises’ existing sites are branded Shell.
Headquartered in Houston, Texas, Motiva Enterprises is a leading refiner, distributor and marketer of fuels in the eastern, southern, and Gulf Coast regions of the U.S. Motiva is owned equally by subsidiaries of Saudi Aramco and Shell Oil Co.