Pony Express Gallops Ahead

Pony Express c-stores offer a hub with food, essentials and loyalty rewards for the communities it serves.

By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor

Pony Express Convenience Stores is positioning itself for the future, expanding its foodservice offering, upgrading locations, growing its loyalty program and offering a community hub with essential groceries for residents in food deserts.

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The first Pony Express location opened in Winnebago, Neb. as a grocery store. The building had been originally designed for The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which commissioned its economic development corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc., in 1996, to use the property to build the first Pony Express store to meet the needs of the community on the reservation. Pony Express remodeled the location to add gas pumps and a restaurant with a lunch menu.

“The first location started as a convenience for the community members, so they didn’t need to travel for what they needed. They could get milk and bread and everything they needed,” said Aleisha Barclay, operations specialist for Pony Express.

Today, Pony Express operates seven convenience stores. Three are located on the Winnebago reservation, two are located on an Omaha reservation and one location is off reservation. The sites range in size from its 12,500-square-foot grocery store to its 1,500-2,000-square-feet traditional c-stores, and all are located in rural areas. Some of the larger stores feature space for a restaurant area with seating.

Each store acts as the hub of the community it serves. “Farmers come in in the morning to get their coffee and talk about their day, and some of those same folks return at lunch to see the daily special, and then they may come back again after work to get gas. It’s the place to be in our community. If they need anything that is where they are going to go,” Barclay said.

A lot of Pony Express customers—both on and off the reservation—lack access to transportation, and it being a rural area, nearby options are limited. To meet the specific needs of the community, Pony Express offers check cashing services at two locations, including the original Winnebago, which also includes a laundromat.

While all locations offer fuel and tobacco, two of the stores feature an expanded grocery section. “They offer meat and one of our stores cuts and packages the meat on site,” Barclay said.

Pony Express is also embarking on a chain-wide remodel initiative that will make over each store with a new brand design featuring an updated color scheme and logo. So far, two locations have been remodeled, both inside and out, with another set for conversion before the end of the year. Pony Express plans to update at least one store per year until all seven are updated under the new look, which Barclay described as “brighter, more modern and more inviting.”

The redesign takes into consideration that most Pony Express locations act as community hubs, by better utilizing space and creating a more open layout.

“I think a lot of convenience stores are overstocked to where it seems like you’re walking through a very tight aisle. With the new design, our customers don’t feel rushed or squeezed, and I think that’s a big competitive advantage for us,” said Ben Preston, marketing manger for Ho-Chunk Inc.

Pony Express continues to develop its foodservice offering. While Pony Express operates a number of programs and promotions in a unified way across its seven stores, when it comes to foodservice the chain opts for different strategies depending on the needs of each location.

“Some of our locations are more equipped and built to be the ‘community hub,’ while some are more traditional c-stores where people want to come in and out quickly, so we have different meal strategies for different locations,” Preston said.

Two locations feature an expanded kitchen area with 10-15 tables, so guests can eat in the store. These stores offer homemade lunch specials, made in-house daily. “Just this week they had chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, tacos and chicken noodle soup—all homemade,” said Barclay.

Two other Pony Express stores feature a Cooper’s Express co-branded chicken program, which the chain first introduced two years ago, and plans to expand to a third location this year.

One store features a Piccadilly Circus Pizza program, while another features a made-to-order unbranded pizza program.

All locations feature fryers for products, such as egg rolls, and offer a full roller grill program. Grab-and-go items are also available at all seven locations, including pre-made sandwiches in the cooler case as well as ‘healthier items’ like fruit cups and yogurt, and high-protein meat and cheese sticks. The two locations with expanded kitchens also offer pre-made salads.

While the majority of Pony Express customers are local repeat customers, most locations are set off a highway, so the chain uses billboards and other signage to alert travelers to its food programs.

Pony Express rolled out its loyalty program three years ago, but in 2017 it began using the program to its full potential, messaging customers and having cashiers mention the loyalty program at every transaction. The result has been a huge increase in usage among customers.

To use the Pony Express loyalty program, customers can text to enroll and use their phone number as their ID, or they can opt for a traditional plastic card.

“You can type in your phone number at the pump and your gas price will roll back by three cents a gallon,” Barclay said. In addition to the fuel rollback, customers also earn points on merchandise bought in the store based on how much they spend.

“If they spend $10 they get 10 points, and once they get 100 points that equals $1 they can redeem in the store for free merchandise. They also earn points by gallons of fuel bought,” Barclay said.

The loyalty program also offers a diesel club program popular with truckers. Not only does it offer a three cent per gallon discount on diesel, but after they use their loyalty card to buy diesel five times they get 500 points ($5), and 10 diesel purchases gets them 1,000 points ($10).

Pony Express is also investing in data collection and analysis.

“We’re in the early stages of building those out. We’ve invested a lot of time in the loyalty program and now we’re working to be able to track active customers, foot traffic, learn what our peak hours are and analyze the best products to offer, as well as the best times to communicate with customers, so we’re investing more in the backend,” Preston said.

In May, customers who used their loyalty card or number were entered into a drawing to win a road trip pack that included a $50 gift card, a 12-pack of soda and a bag of family size chips.

On the customer-facing end, Pony Express is working to expand promotions.

“A lot of our stores, even in rural areas, are competing with the grocery stores offering gas like Walmart and Hy-Vee, so we’re looking not only at how do we compete on price, but how do we make our loyalty program more valuable to our customers?” Preston said.

Currently, Pony Express is positioning for future growth. After 20 years of honing its operations and expanding to seven stores, the chain is ensuring the proper systems and infrastructure are in place to sustain operations as it moves into the future.

“Once we do get these systems in place and the infrastructure built, we’ll be able to scale hopefully pretty quickly,” Preston added.