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    Are you Targeting the Youth Market?

    Teens are a difficult customer group with many potential pitfalls.

    By Connie Coates

    Many convenience stores avoid the youth market because of teens' erratic buying behaviors and personalities. Youths don't adopt a habit of stopping at one location or even seek out good customer service like older customers do.

    Sales to teens will be inconsistent and hard to count on. Neighborhood stores have a more favorable opportunity in establishing a stable youth customer base because they serve as an easy access point to and from home. These youths can range in age from 10 to 17 and will usually be within walking distance of these locations. The average sale per customer is low because they don't purchase high-priced items, except when their parents send them to purchase a forgotten need.

    Many stores have stocked caps, jewelry, cell phones with accessories, and other miscellaneous items to try and capitalize on the youth market. Some companies have elected to become cell phone or other bills' authorized dealers in hopes of gaining the youth market. Sadly, most of them will go in, pay their bills and walk back out without purchasing anything else, which immediately deflates the original goal.

    The only way to gain the youth market is to keep abreast of the style changes, and market "in-and-out" products to maintain their interests. In-and-out, sales counter gadgets, with high markups and geared toward that age group, normally will make them return.

    The average age of regular convenience store customers ranges from about 25 years and older. The group between 18 to 25 years of age is the one that companies need to focus on recruiting to become daily regular customers. Companies should consider surveying that age group and ask what would bring them in as regular customers.

    Attracting young people as regular customers, though, does have its unique drawbacks. The store can become meeting place or a hangout for teenagers rather than a retail sales outlet. Such gatherings can lead to an increase in theft, grazing, and loss of other paying customers. Older customers, especially women, won't stop at a location where there's a congregation of teens hanging around outside or inside the store. They'll always go to a location they feel most safe and comfortable with, regardless of the price differences.

    Teen customers also subject a retailer to some of the most costly penalties a company can endure because of the danger of selling legally controlled or restricted products to underage customers. Companies can face enormous fines, lose their selling privileges, be sued in courts, and even lose otherwise good employees. It is the worst position any company wants to find itself in because no one wins in this situation.

    Beer and cigarette sales are the fastest-moving items in the convenience store industry, yet they're also the most controlled products by law. Losing the privilege of selling either is catastrophic for any company because it also adversely impacts the impulse sales that would have gone with those planned purchases. There's no company that wants to shoulder the bad publicity of being on any "sold to minors" blacklist.

    Also, violations put the guilty companies under a more concentrated microscope from the state's alcoholic beverage commissions. These commissions will even use underage youth as decoys to get employees to violate the law. The commission officers also have the discretion of arresting any employee violating the law on the spot. If he/she decides to do so, it causes the company another unexpected problem of covering that shift.

    Also, selling alcohol to an already intoxicated customer is a life-threatening decision because if he/she injures or kills him/herself or someone else, the company and guilty employee instantly become liable. Even though it doesn't seem like the mom-and-pop neighborhood stores are as scrutinized as the larger companies, they still cannot let their guard down. Such a violation would be so costly, it would destroy the entire business.

    Consistent training, unexpected mystery shopper visits, and reinforcement of policy are the only ways a convenience store has a chance to combat this serious problem.

    Here are some ways to spot underage youth before they purchase a restricted item:

    -- Often, they'll try to strike up a casual conversation with the employee to alleviate suspicion.

    -- They will rush up to the sales counter with money in hand, hoping to make a quick purchase of the restricted product before they are questioned.

    -- Most are nervous of getting caught, and their demeanor will give them away. Employees should be trained to look for telltale signs, such as facial expressions.

    -- Others are over-confident, or will try to use their sex-appeal on the employee to deflect attention from what they are purchasing.

    -- Unlawful purchasing of alcoholic beverages often occurs during weekends, holidays and late evenings.

    -- Employees should be trained to always ask for ID if they have the slightest doubt about a customer's age. Since beer and cigarettes are the main products the youth market goes into convenience stores to purchase, this places an additional burden on the employee to make sure his/her ID check procedure is unconditional toward all doubts.

    -- Losing the price of a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer is a better trade off than losing all of either of those sales for months due to a violation punishment.

    Connie Coates worked in the retail industry for 32 years, 26 of those years managing convenience stores for E-Z Mart Inc. and Lone Star Ice and Food Stores. He is also a published author and has written a guidebook for new store managers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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