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By Renee M. Covino
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Was it a trade show or a Broadway show? The ampm national convention, held last week for the first time in a dozen years at the Disneyland Hotel, was a little bit of both—and had attendees looking towards a future filled with "too much good stuff" (its slogan, and also conference chant).
The retailer's first convention since going "all franchise" earlier this year drew more than 1,000 attendees (including about 80 percent of its franchisees), housed more than 130 exhibitors, and featured workshops, sessions and guest speakers, including outside retail experts such as Paco Underhill, consumer trends guru, and top BP parent-company executives, including Fiona MacLeod, president of convenience retail for the U.S.A. and Latin America.
But traditional show agenda aside, there was an unmistakable theatrical air about the place. The ampm brand was projected in a supersized neon-lighted sign, affixed to design-element scaffolding beside the conference stage. Meanwhile, dozens of inflatable, brightly-colored spheres that resembled planets, but with pointy ("edgy") spikes hung overhead, suspended from a blackened ceiling. And the chain piped in high-energy rock music, representative of the chain's three decades in business—the '80s, '90s and today.
The conference kicked off with "America's Got Talent" 2007 Finalist "Passing Zone," a male duo of comedic jugglers who finished their act in ballet costumes—and juggling powered-up chainsaws. Their moral to the audience: amazing things can happen when people trust each other and come together in teamwork.
"If c-stores were jugglers, our competitors would be juggling oranges and bowling pins, while ampm would be juggling chainsaws," said MacLeod in her vibrant Scottish accent, as she took the podium.
Her speech centered on having "pride in our past, confidence in our present, and energy and excitement about our future together." As proof of her own energy and excitement, she swayed with the groove of ampm’s commercial music playing to the screen behind her—a video presentation of the 30-year-old chain's advertising history.
But the music and dancing hardly stopped there. Professional dancers took part in an elaborate "mini-musical" that highlighted in song and dance much of the ampm brand's new enhancements and improvements, including:
-- Its 24-hour hot-food offering, which includes the addition of corn dogs and a "bigger, better burger;"
--The pre-recorded hip music played at the conference will now be piped in to all stores, but with added "funky" ampm commercial messages; and
--The chain's just-unveiled new employee uniforms, which were designed with photographic images of the hot food and "too much good stuff" icons—corn dogs, burgers, big drinks, etc.—on its baseball caps, aprons and in a "strip" down one side of a royal blue uniform polo shirt.
"The competition is fierce, with other c-stores copying some of the best stuff we've got in ampm; but I'm here to tell you, ampm is fit for this fight and to win this war," said Don Strenk, vice president of operations. "We know customers don't come to us just for the corn dogs—it's the brand, the total offer, and how we execute it, and we're going to take it where no one has gone before—there will be a bigger, bolder ampm experience."
Strenk referenced an "operational excellence" program the company has in place for three years with its former company-operated stores; and now franchisees are coming on board with this practical approach to operations, which include best practices on how to clean the store, stock it, greet customers and other "best of the best" ideas from successful store managers and franchisees. Strenk told the crowd one franchisee who recently put the program in place saw a 62 percent sales increase in the prepared food area alone. Many stores have seen an overall 10 percent sales improvement "just by treating customers right" through the program steps, according to Strenk.
Overall, the ampm brand uses "humor, energy and authenticity" to attract and retain its customers, said Andrew J. Baird, vice president of marketing and merchandising, convenience retail. "Consumers are making significant shifts in their shopping behavior—they're reducing the number of stops they make—which makes it even more important that we give customers a reason to come back. We believe the answer is taking the ampm brand and turning it into a true customer experience that they can see, taste, hear and smell. We want to touch the senses of our customers so that they really know they are in an ampm store."
After the fanfare, in an exclusive interview with Convenience Store News, MacLeod and her convenience store team sat down to discuss the show and the future of ampm. Here are some of the highlights:
--On this being the first "national" show since 1996:
"We've always brought our top-performing franchisees together every year with a big incentive trip," said MacLeod. "But we haven't all been together; it's been in different groups. Now with all the new franchisees, we wanted to give everybody a chance to immerse in the culture and be connected. This is a great opportunity to indoctrinate them into the heritage and the history, and give them a chance to network with 30 years of experience out there so they can hit the ground running very, very quickly. And the fact that we're going national was just a great opportunity to take it to the next level."
--Explaining why the trade show was executed in such an "edgy" way:
"To me, ampm is a brand that wants to grow, and in order for us to grow we need passion, excitement and the commitment of our franchisees," said MacLeod. "And we don't want to stand still in the current environment; we want to grow through the current environment and get our people together and have them reconnect, have fun and rediscover their passion for ampm. From passion comes growth, it's genuinely how I feel about this brand."
"We don't want to stand still, we want to stand out," added Baird.
--A status report on converting company stores to franchise:
"We're actively recruiting in all our existing markets," stated Bill Fry, vice president of retail operations. "We've done Discovery Days in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Orlando and Cleveland, and a few on the West Coast. We will be in 12 states total, once we've finished selling off the company stores."
"By the end of 2009, we would look to be entirely franchised with ampm," MacLeod stated. "My judgment as of now is that we're well ahead of that target—so we're very happy with where we are. In 2009 we're also planning to look at opportunities in other states. We have already had interest from jobbers looking to grow in states where we don't currently have an ampm franchise."
--On the consistency of the brand from store-to-store and state-to-state:
"If we're doing our job right, customers shouldn't notice much difference," MacLeod said. "About 85 percent of the stores should be consistent, with about 15 percent tailored to local markets, local demographics, maybe a higher weighting of Latino products, for instance. But the core products should be consistent. We want customers to walk in to any of our stores and not have to thinking differently about it."
--Regarding the recent ampm brand awareness:
"It has blown us away," maintained MacLeod. "The speed of customer recognition, customer relationship with the brand has just been so quick. Within days of stores opening, we see a whole different customer base coming in and shopping. In the market areas where we just launched the ampm brand, it's only been a matter of months, and it's already more than 50 percent, which is huge. And in certain key markets, where the brand has been there longer, the brand awareness is more than 60 percent. People just really 'get' the brand. They understand that ampm means 'morning and evening, I can get what I want.' They also know it's fun, they get that it's a c-store—it's a very real brand for people."