Convenience Store Decisions introduces a new format for leaders to share their views.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
To ring in the new year, CSD is introducing a new feature entitled the Executive Corner, which will appear quarterly. Within, we explore current issues with a company leader, which are affecting his or her company and the industry as a whole. Jonathan Polonsky, president and chief operating officer of Plaid Pantry, a 109-store chain based in Beaverton, Ore., this month answers questions relating to the workforce, healthcare and what 2018 might hold in store.
Convenience Store Decisions (CSD): In your view, what is one of the biggest challenges convenience store operators face in 2018?
Jonathan Polonsky (JP): We need to continue to find ways to attract and retain nontraditional convenience store customers. This is truly such a challenge because there is no one new idea or category to draw that person into the store. It will be accomplished by evolving our product mix and services to meet the immediate wants and needs of those consumers. The environments most of us operate in are becoming more competitive and diverse so making a connection with a new customer is more difficult than ever.
CSD: Finding good employees is always a challenge. Has the industry made strides when it comes to being a desired workplace for the younger generation, or does it still have a distance to go?
JP: The convenience store business doesn’t have the best reputation as a great place to work and I don’t think many potential young workers view it as a viable long-term career path. We have taken a few steps internally to communicate with our newer associates that we offer a great place to work and how they can have a successful long-term career in retail. Our new-hire Buddy System rewards existing associates who successfully recruit employees. Existing associates receive cash incentives when a person they have referred gets hired. They continue to get rewarded as their referral reached his or her one-, three- and six-month anniversaries.
CSD: For the first time in a long time, a business–friendly climate seems to have settled on Washington, D.C. Are you optimistic that the political direction the country appears headed? Why?
JP: Yes and no. I agree that at the federal level policy has started to tilt toward a more business-friendly agenda, particularly in the form of greater deregulation. Stores face huge differences in operating challenges depending on what state, county or city they are located in. I’m a big advocate of local political involvement; it’s the best chance you have to influence the policies that will have a very significant impact on your day-to-day business.
CSD: Would you say that your company has developed a workable plan to combat rising healthcare costs, or does it remain an ongoing battle?
JP: Like most companies our size, we can do only so much to deal with this ballooning cost. We regularly shop our plan to maximize the benefits we can offer our associates. Providing our people affordable health insurance is extremely important to us and we continue to offset a significantly higher portion of that cost relative to our peers.
CSD: Our cover story focuses on changes within the fuel category. In the next few years, do you see fuel sales being as important to convenience retailers as they have been in the past?
JP: Demand should remain pretty stable, balanced by increases from the overall economy, which looks like it still has room to grow and decreases from fleet efficiency, electrification and Uber.
CSD: In your opinion, is the c-store industry doing an adequate job of integrating technology to accommodate today’s customer, or should it step up its game?
JP: My sense is that the industry has done a good job with core technology infrastructure related to security, sales analysis and inventory management. There are opportunities to make improvements in customer and employee facing technologies to better communicate and engage with them but it can be difficult to justify those investments when you have many stores scattered versus large big box formats. I don’t think our industry will be penalized that much by not being at the cutting edge of technology.