The convenience store industry has become a highly competitive channel that battles to gain market share and share of wallet from each and every consumer. In the bid to create in-store sales, even secondary categories such as general merchandise have gained critical status in the last few years.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
Once general merchandise was a small part of a c-store’s product mix. However, with a new generation of consumers, demand for apparel, accessories and other items is creating new opportunities for retailers looking to promote nonperishable articles.
In fact, by implementing an effective general merchandise strategy, some convenience retailers are connecting with patrons in new ways. One way capitalizes on Americans’ need to collect mementoes when memories are still relevant. Localized merchandising can draw customers if the selection is right, said Jeff Campbell, associate professor at University of South Carolina’s Department of Retailing.
Localized merchandise—whether it’s the favorite college athletic team or a tie to a tourist attraction such as the Grand Canyon—can connect with passing patrons even more than generic, functional merchandise such as razors or windshield wipers. Merchandise that carries sentimental value or spurs community pride can be a tangible reminder that helps customers relive a happening and share it with others.
“Tailoring products to local markets, when appropriate, is a good strategy, particularly if the products stocked are good margin drivers and the type of localization adequately reflects the areas they serve,” Campbell said. “Local products in convenience stores can attract both customers who are passing through the area and want a little keepsake of their trip as well as customers who might seek event-based products—auto races, college sports—or location-based products like lake apparel or tourist items related to the area.”
Even special events can resonate with consumers looking to capture an item that represents a moment in time. A good example of an event that captured the nation’s fancy occurred Aug. 21 2017. The first total solar eclipse visible coast-to-coast from the mainland U.S. in almost a century.
“Here in Columbia, S.C., we had the solar eclipse last year and could not keep products in stock in c-stores. Sunglasses, t-shirts, etc. all sold well,” said Campbell.
CASTING FOR BASS
Of course national brands that are highly sought after can be another weapon in a retailer’s merchandising arsenal. Just ask Brian Ferguson, chief merchant for Pilot Flying J.
Two of the nation’s biggest—Pilot Flying J and Bass Pro Shops—in 2017 collaborated on a shop-in-shop initiative that is drawing even more interest to their popular brands.
The collaboration between the leading outdoor lifestyle brand and the national travel center network marks the first of its kind for both companies. The shop-in-shop concept, which was rolled at a newly-renovated Pilot Flying J in Lebanon, Tenn. last summer, has generated strong customer feedback in the year it was installed on the floor of the travel center.
Ferguson characterizes the venture in the Tennessee location as a success because of the positive results.
“We have been really pleased with the partnership,” Ferguson said. “You have two really great brands coming together to do something unique, that really nobody has done before in the travel center/convenience store space. Our customers have responded strongly to the assortment, to the specialty retail concept.”
Since last summer, the company has rolled out another Bass Pro Shop store-in-store concept in Gallop, N.M. and a third site in Tye, Texas.
“We’re currently under construction for two more, which will open by the end of the year,” including a second Texas location as well as a new travel center in South Dakota, Ferguson said.
“Certainly, we want to expose as many of our guests as possible to the Bass Pro concept,” he said. “Once they’re exposed to it, we see great results in the sales and how they react whether it’s social, digital or even their feedback to us.”
Headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., Pilot Flying J currently operates more than 750 travel centers under the Pilot, Pilot Express and Flying J banners in 44 states.
“From a general merchandise standpoint, my primary goal is to differentiate Pilot Flying J from our competition in the industry and to offer products that are unique,” Ferguson said.
“There’s a ton of trends out there. The strongest trends are in the consumer electronics side of the business. The innovations such as earbuds and accessories for your iPhone.”
On the accessory side, ORCA drinkware has also become popular at Pilot Flying J locations.
In addition, the company this past August announced the launched of its own heavy-duty motor oil, which is available at all company locations. The Pilot Flying J Heavy Duty 10W-30 Motor Oil and Pilot Flying J Heavy Duty 15W-40 Motor Oil are priced at $16.99 per gallon.
Though motorists are Pilot’s bread and butter, consumers looking for that special item can make dough for c-stores.
“When deciding which items to carry, c-stores should consider items that would yield high-sales per square foot—given the space limitations—as well as those which would turn fairly quickly,” Campbell said. “College t-shirts, hats or mascot related products tend to sell well as do products related to the professional sports teams close to the area.“
Promotions and displays that pair general merchandise items like cups and glasses with food and beverage items, such as homemade cheeses and fruits from the farmer’s market or the area craft brewer, can serve as ways to draw traffic.
“Including those types of products in general merchandise as well as maybe a few stocked food-related items that are representative of the area such as local salsa or local beer/wine in a high traffic part of the store could be of benefit,” Campbell said.