… and the world is passing us by
AFTER WORKING IN the convenience store industry for nearly four decades, I have concluded that for the most part, the convenience store has evolved from the great American dream, to a sweat shop employing hordes of apathetic workers who deliver sub-standard service to zombie-like consumers that can’t even remember where they stopped the last time.
This is fine with consumers, because like trained seals, they make a beeline to what they want, grab it, and leave while avoiding eye contact, not wanting to call attention to themselves, or interacting with anyone unless absolutely necessary.
Their vendors on the other hand, reward these retailers for their unprofessional attitudes by turning their stores into storage facilities for junk they can’t sell.
Government regulations in the hands of Robin Hoods are stealing the tiny profits retailers earn, and redistributing them among themselves, while employees graze in the stores, void of any semblance of self-respect and a complete lack of ambition, are forever grumbling about low wages, giving up all responsibility for their actions, and fully expecting all their wants and desires to be provided by their surrogates, regardless of how lazy and unproductive they may have become.
We have created a monster!
Convenience store retailers themselves have proudly engineered this environment—not the government, not their employees and not their suppliers. We have done this to ourselves, and we could change it; and if we don’t change it soon, we may lose the industry entirely to companies that are hungry for our clientele, and have the money and the resolve to take it from right out from under our noses.
You may be asking yourselves, “What in blazes brought this on? Scott has occasionally crossed the line, but this time he has gone off his rocker.”
I attribute the reason for my tirade to the realization that at some time in my business career, I became a foundation engineer. If there is a crack in the upstairs ceiling, I don’t blame the roof, I immediately suspect the foundation, and I hire a specialist to look under the house to see if something is amiss.
Consequently, when I see a crack in the fabric of a retail store, the first place I look is in the basement, the foundation that carries the weight of everything the store stands on, and usually I am right. It could be a poorly-advised change in company policy, a shift of responsibility from one individual to another, management gone whacko, etc. And if the structure is not maintained properly, the day will arrive when the entire business will have to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, or become a tanning salon for sun worshipers who are anxiously awaiting their very first skin cancer.
During the 1980s, I learned early on in my career, while selling computers to oil jobbers and retail convenience store operators, there was invariably substantial resistance emanating from their employees. Some had worked in those businesses for 20-30 years, and most of them said they would attempt to get used to the new environment; however, it’s not just a new tool that they were facing. They quickly learned that their function within the organization had changed, and as fear began to invade their psyche, fear evolved into anger.
As the official ‘re-assigner of employee responsibilities’, I became a prime target for assassination; but over time, it was something I had learned to expect, so I was able to deal with each incident as it occurred. I had about an 80-20 success rate, in that 20% of the employees I ran off were most commonly the ones that were ready to retire anyway. It wasn’t the best part of my job, but it was necessary to put an end to most of the mumbling and grumbling that stood in the way of a successful implementation. The ones that stayed were the ones willing to accept the inevitability of change.
This is the way I see the convenience channel now.
The foundation of every business is always changing—sometimes dramatically and noticeable by everyone, but usually inconspicuous, as animals and birds foretell an imminent earthquake. But this change reminds me of going down a tunnel that is forever decreasing in diameter. You find yourself following the poor souls in front of you, and suddenly you’re trapped. You can’t move forward, you can’t turn around, so you can’t go back. If you can’t see these effects on companies like yours, you should take another look.
As the foundation of a house is beginning to fail, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve painted the upstairs bedroom, or remodeled the kitchen; the house is coming down if you don’t act quickly and fix the foundation. People don’t seem to realize that when changes are made up above, those changes may not be supported by the structure that is expected to support them and that is what is happening here.
No teenager likes to clean up his room… well most don’t, and it goes to suggest that most businesses don’t like to restructure their foundation. But, there is a difference between the foundation of a home and the foundation of a business. It can be far less expensive to repair and upgrade the latter than it is the former, but it can be much harder. Why? Because the foundation of a business is composed of age-old assumptions that do not die on their own. They become automatic responders that innocently show themselves at the most inappropriate times, when we are making decisions.
Let’s examine a few of these assumptions and demonstrate how they lay siege to our most important plans.
Customers Don’t Care About Personal Service
I find this assumption to be one of the most damaging for convenience store retailers. If you’re like me, you would prefer to frequent a retailer that knows you, who shows an interest in you, and tries to see that each of your visits to his or her store creates a positive experience.
When I encounter a retailer making changes in their stores aimed at increasing store traffic, which sometimes leads to the weakening of customer service, it makes me sad. If it seems to you that your customers want to get in and out of your stores as quickly as possible, you will tend to cater to that kind of trade. Ways I see retailers doing this, is to play loud and fast music over the stores’ loudspeakers. “Next please, next please,” is their favorite mantra, followed up with “Have a nice day… NEXT PLEASE,” which is translated to the customer as “Got your money. Carry you’re a__”. And since consumers are getting used to this, they aren’t even aware that it is revolting. They just get out, and never come back.
People are social animals. Putting a ‘Scan and Go’ section in a store will suggest to the store’s customers that you don’t have time to deal with them, or worse, they don’t have time to deal with you. Do this, and you will have turned your stores into coin-operated turnstiles. I don’t care if it’s the trend. It is wrong and you will end up paying for it.
My Cashiers Are Dumb as A Box of Rocks
I know of practically no one that will admit to this, yet I know of practically no one that does not pass this feeling along to their employees. Treating employees as if they have no value, leads to protests for higher wages, a complete loss of their self-respect, a feeling of entitlement, which leads to apathy, depression, theft, shrink and outright sabotage.
The convenience store industry has adapted a revolving door policy with regards to employees. Every convenience store employee is a part-time, transient, common laborer, even if they work a 40-hour week. They know that you know that, and you know that they know that you know that, so what’s the use of remembering their names? The way you treat your employees runs parallel to the way you treat your customers, and you manage that exchange quite professionally by teaching your employees that their clientele are no more important than themselves. They will often go so far as to ask your customers and suppliers if they have any idea where they can find a decent job.
Only a minuscule percentage of employees are naïve enough to see their jobs as a ladder to a life-long career. I have conversed with hundreds of employees who have no idea who they are working for. This can be easily changed, and the results would be amazing. One enthusiastic employee has far more value to your business than any number of apathetic workers could ever have.
The method used to fix this problem is a simple three step process involving ambition, self-respect, and responsibility, in any order. If you can’t give them that, then you are headed for a train wreck, with your employees at the switch, while you are lounging in the caboose.
My Suppliers Are Stealing From Me
After four decades of servicing the convenience store industry, I cannot recall even one instance where a supplier has intentionally set out to cheat a retailer. There may be exceptions, but I know of none.
What I have seen is retailers that expect far more from their suppliers than their suppliers ever signed up for. One thing I have learned during my time in this business, is that if you generously take over the responsibilities of another person, it will often lead to their total dependence on you, followed by resentment of that dependence, and subsequently blaming you for everything that happens to them after that. Remember the axiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Yet every day, suppliers desperate for more income, will give the appearance that they will solve all your problems, and the truth is, even if they mean it, they are not familiar enough with your policies, or your specific market to do any of this. Their job is to keep your store crammed with merchandise you can’t sell, for fear an empty spot will draw your disapproval.
A primary example is the pre-sales person. A job that started out to help the retailer who didn’t have the tools to help him or herself, and in most cases, has ended up as a greedy, commission-driven maniac whose antennas are tuned to finding a spot that is not already covered up with his products; proving the axiom, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Once, I was literally thrown out of a beer distributor’s office, merely for the suggestion that in the future, my customer would tell him what to send instead of his pre-salesman making that decision.
Stores that aren’t full look picked over.
Who said that anyway? I’ll bet it was a supplier who was looking for a place to store junk nobody wanted. When a dollar-type store first opened in our tiny community, it was probably the best looking store in our town, but within a year, inventory started piling up—empty boxes with one item way down at the bottom, shrink-wrap draped of the shelves and dropping to the floor, products displayed backwards or upside down, and enough dust on items to start a potato garden. You’ve been there, seen that, and you know what I am talking about. If you want to know why too much inventory is not a good thing, fill your crankcase with oil until it flows over onto the engine, drive a hundred miles and tell us what happened.
Store shelves do not need to be packed and overflowing. They are other reasons that too much inventory is killing stores (other than the above). You cannot afford to invest in stock you will have on your shelves for three months before it sells (if ever). Carry only what you can sell between delivery cycles and use attractive fillers to take care of the holes.
Convenience store retailers have chosen the wrong path.
If this weren’t the case, they would be making more money. Much more money. Two to three times more money. They seem to be stuck on holding down cost and forever looking for the magical market that may not exist. Changing your store will most definitely influence your clientele; but you mustn’t make that change without careful thought and research. Things might get worse, and you can’t afford that, else you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
Here’s my advice: before you make a change in your stores, first fix your foundation, because if you are not confident with the ground you are standing on, you will ultimately fail.
Look around you: Walmart, Amazon, Target, and others, are coming for your business, and they’re not riding tricycles. They’re driving rockets.