C-store veteran Mike Nelson, senior category manager for the 108-store Beaverton, Ore.-based Plaid Pantry chain, has seen a lot during his time in the industry.
For his expertise in adapting to new products, new methods and new technologies during 30 years of c-store evolution, Nelson has earned CStore Decisions’ recognition as a leader in category management.
“I started in stores in 1991 and — minus a couple years when I moved to Arizona — I’ve been with the company ever since,” Nelson said.
Nelson has spent most of his adult life in the c-store industry. The native of Roanoke, Va., attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond before “deciding on a whim to move to Oregon.”
He has been in his current department since 1998, which early on helped him meet vendors and develop relationships. “Which I think is a very important aspect of the job,” noted Nelson. “I was also able to help out with a lot of ‘back room’ aspects of the department before actually becoming a category manager.”
Rolling With the Changes
The convenience store environment has evolved dramatically since Nelson first clocked in. The rapid pace of technology continues to upgrade the tools of the trade in multiple ways, accelerated in the past year by the pandemic.
“As our department has gone through a number of changes over the last couple years, I’ve had an opportunity to manage quite a variety of categories,” Nelson explained. “Currently, I manage non-alcoholic beverages, meat snacks, alternative snacks, and nuts and seeds.”
But on his way to earning the “senior” in front of his category manager title, Nelson honed his merchandising skills managing products across the c-store spectrum, including fresh foods and pastry, salty snacks, health and beauty, general merchandise, fountain drinks and coffee.
Nelson credited any success he has had to the people who showed him the ropes through the years, especially one particular Plaid Pantry executive. “My mentor was our former Vice President of Marketing Tim Cote,” Nelson said. “He is no longer with Plaid Pantry, but he led our team for decades and taught me so many things about how to approach category management.”
That tutelage no doubt came in handy juggling the myriad hurdles that face today’s busy category managers.
Putting It All Together
“Every puzzle I build starts with way too many pieces!” Nelson said. “It can also be quite a challenge trying to keep up with the ever-changing trends and customer wants.”
But that’s also where the satisfaction and, yes, the fun comes from the work. “I truly like the ‘puzzle-building’ aspect of set building,” Nelson added. “Taking all given information into consideration and bringing my vision to life in store. And, hopefully, for the good of the company.”
And with Plaid Pantry’s team spirit, there are plenty of opportunities for Nelson to draw upon the wealth of c-store wisdom he has picked up over the course of three decades in the business.
“We have always run a pretty lean company,” Nelson said, “so everyone here has to wear several hats at a time. That certainly keeps the days interesting. But I’ve also been lucky enough to be trusted with a fair amount of autonomy in my planning and decision-making.”
Considering Nelson’s wealth of experience and willingness to adapt, that trust is well-placed.