By David Bennett, Senior Editor
In the competitive climate, in which convenience stores operate, one of the biggest advantages that the channel holds over other retail segments is obviously convenience. It’s the one business aspect that other channels have tried to emulate with limited success.
Then again, c-stores are striving to differentiate themselves by offering ATMS, better loyalty programs and other means. Some companies are tweaking the concept of convenience while providing their customers unique personal service, thus creating whole new profit centers that are fully integrated into their operations.
Anymore, healthy and fresh are popular buzzwords in the c-store industry. Metairie, La.-based Diaz Market is embracing the future by adapting to the latest trends to meet its customers’ needs for nutritious food options. In fact, in the southeastern region of Louisiana, it’s has become an entry point for low-caloric food for customers in a hurry.
The c-store has created a canvas for creativity when it comes to sandwiches with multigrain breads, wraps salads and cut fruit. The company’s stores feature open-air coolers near the registers that are stocked with fresh, healthy options.
Diaz Market has set about offering different food options than the typical convenience store fare. Giselle Diaz Eastlack, general manager of the 17-store chain, said in a short period, the c-store has become one of the leading retailers in the channel when it comes to providing customers with healthier grab-and-go options.
The c-store wanted to expand that customer experience by redesigning its stores to punctuate that fresh feel.
“One of the things we’re doing right now is going through and renovating all of our sites for a more modern look; a more friendly, inviting and clean look for our customers,” Eastlack said. “As you walk into our doors, one of the first things you will see is a fresh case and in there is fresh fruit, fresh salads and packaged sandwiches.”
The store also offers f’real smoothies and recently partnered with local New Orleans coffee chain P.J.’s Coffee to provide premium coffee inside and at the drive-through.
Diaz Market, which started in 1996, earlier this year enlisted Ascension Fitness, a local wellness center, to develop promotional, online spots marketing to younger mothers, encouraging them to stop into their local Diaz Market and grab a quick, healthy snack for the day. That type of visual appeal has helped make Diaz market a destination for health-conscious residents.
The Cube, a streamlined convenience store in Norman, Okla., is certainly converting convenience into a profit center.
The drive-through-only c-store offers customers a way to shop for a range of items without leaving their cars. Tucked inside a 2,000-square-foot building, it has a full kitchen, fresh foods and takes advantage of a small lot that doesn’t work for other retail formats.
Basically, the Cube features three drive-through windows and another walk-up window where customers can order items. No matter the window, patrons experience a face-to-face encounter no matter what side of the Cube they visit. It’s a quick delivery concept that its owners call a “neighborhood concierge.”
Executive Chef Andy Revella said there are no microwaves on site. Rather, meats and cheeses are carved on site, pizzas are cooked fresh and most made-to-order dishes are delivered to customers about two minutes after an order is placed.
In addition, customers can order general merchandise—whether it’s toilet paper or cigarettes. The items are gathered at a central point, bagged and included with the rest of the order.
“This isn’t about a shopping experience, it’s about getting what you want,” Revella said. “So, we thought ‘how we can take this to the next level?’ in terms of customer service.”
To achieve quality and convenience, newly-hired employees go through an extensive educational program to learn how to prepare each menu item, which includes premium coffee and lattes, hearty breakfast sandwiches and burritos, family-sized pizzas and a variety of nutritious snacks.
In addition, the Cube is testing a company app where customers can order their items from home, which is enticing to a growing segment of American consumers.
“Generation Z—one fourth of the population and that’s 21-years-old and younger—they don’t know anything else but technology,” Revella said. “They were born with a smartphone in one hand.”
This demographic should help push the Cube to its next level of growth for the company, which is seeing increased sales every month since it opened the store at the beginning of this year.
Revella’s resume includes stints at Steak & Ale Corp. and Grand Casinos, and he is one of the creators of the menu at the Rainforest Café. It was the futuristic concept of the Cube—founded on its proclivity for convenience—that enticed him to join the entrepreneurial team as overseer of its foodservice program.
Not only does the Cube rely on face- to-face interaction as its premise for success, the blueprint for the c-store, which is looking for its next location, is different from competing convenience operators. The retailer built its first store on a lot too small for typical retail use. The Cube doesn’t worry about the expense of building out its interior because of it’s drive-through- only operation.
Joe Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of the Cube, is betting the new retail concept will not only change the market around Norman, but the convenience channel overall.
“I don’t worry about competitors at this point, but we’re certainly getting a lot of attention from people from all over the nation,” Lawrence said.
The Cube expects to implement an RFID system that will enable the c-store to track when a customer is near so the staff can prepare his or her order that much more quickly.
There are multiple components of a successful c-store operation and very few today that aren’t affected by today’s variations of technology.
Teutopolis, Ill.-based Mach 1 Stores, the retail arm of Meyer Oil Co., operates 17 locations throughout central and southern Illinois and Indiana. The family-owned retailer, based in Illinois, promotes customer satisfaction as one of its retail pillars. To boost the convenience factor for customers Mach 1, for the last six months, has been using a mobile technology called NCR Pulse Real-Time to help maintain almost every facet of its operations.
Pulse, through dashboards and alerts, delivers information on a user’s smartphone or tablet pertaining to key operational measures, including fuel operations and other key systems to assist in maximizing up-times on those systems. Since early summer, Mach 1 has been using the system in multiple ways, including tracking real-time sales and store operations.
Alan Meyer, Mach 1 fuel manager, said a retailer can customize the app so it monitors employee actions, leading to improvement of staffing levels and employee performance. With the mobile-based system, store managers and owners can help maximize up- time of key store systems, optimizing profitability and shopper satisfaction.
Because Pulse can track—in real time—servers’ data retrieved from the point of sale system, the c-store has been able to gain better visibility of its in-store activity, thus responding to customers in a timelier manner.
In turn, Mach 1 has been able to anticipate its customers’ needs before they can communicate them. That type of convenience has been a game changer.
“You can include the items that are most important for you,” Meyer said. “For example, our general manager can go to our stores, let’s say at 1 p.m., and if he sees that the roller grill is empty, he can pull it up on his Pulse app and see that 40 roller grill items were sold so far today, so maybe that’s a case of them having trouble keeping up with demand for the day. Or he may see that they have zero (items sold), which means they forgot to put items on the roller grill.”
The technology has helped Mach 1 improve customer service at the gas pumps equipped with card readers. Before the mobile app, the c-store incurred a significant number of card swipe failures, where customers would swipe a card, but the transaction wouldn’t go through. This resulted in irritated patrons and the extra expense tied to Mach 1 replacing existing card-reading devices with new ones.
With the app, the c-store was able to determine that equipment often wasn’t faulty, but dirty, spurring a solution of having employees clean the equipment more often. Meyer said that policy has resulted in a 75% decrease in failed card transactions, which has enabled customers to reduce their wait time at the pump considerably.