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New design initiatives in store interiors, from lighting to shelving, are proving that the convenience store is no longer just a quick stop, but a place for comfortable, safe refuge from the road.
Shelving, coolers, lighting and displays define style, explained Larry Miller, president of Retail Management and Design in Lake Mary, Fla. "You have to change the expectation of the customer by changing the design," he said.
Branding a store style rather than concentrating on a single product, such as a carbonated soft drink, or its display, is becoming prevalent in many retail outlets, which c-store owners are noticing and emulating.
Miller called this concept the "Starbucket" effect, an obvious nod to the coffee guru responsible for raising the customer expectation bar.
"Starbucks gives a warm, upscale and fresh feeling," said Miller, adding that the use of murals and artistic designs has also been an emerging theme in recent years.
Companies like Starbucks and Target have changed the topography of retail and design, according to Rick Lawlor, vice president of retail marketing for the American Hess Corp. "Starbucks are masters at creating an environment and creating a premium within that environment," said Lawlor. "Customers are now looking for a neat retail experience and this has forced c-stores to compete against people outside the c-store circle."
This Year's Black
Miller reported that new shelving units that are black or have black bordering, like Starbuck's design, are in vogue. "If the fixture is black the merchandise pops off the display piece," he said, explaining that wire shelving is being replaced more and more by wood and Formica shelving driven by strong, solid colors.
"The use of any new fixture can really have an impact on what you want to accomplish, which is selling," said Miller.
New designs approaches are not only emerging in chains but in independently owned stores as well.
Sol Glastein, co-owner of Simple Simon Inc. in Hackensack, N.J., says one of his latest initiatives was installing new wire shelving, which differs slightly from Miller's approach but nevertheless has proven successful.
"We use metro wire shelving," said Glastein. "It's a cleaner more open look that gives a better product display."
But before product placement can be effective, customers have to feel warm and welcome, said Scott Dean, spokesman for BP Connect.
"The new trend in retail is for a larger convenience store with an overarching design concept that is easy, accessible and clean for the automobile shopper," said Dean, adding that the average BP Connect store size is 4,200 square feet.
Dean explained that before the first BP Connect was unveiled in early 2000, its design was honed in a top-secret warehouse located outside of Atlanta. To date, there are 270 BP Connects in the United States and another 207 worldwide.
While research is not an exact science, c-stores continually put time and money into discovering the keys to the retail kingdom.
Currently, Hess Express has hired cameramen to follow customers (with their knowledge) from their car through the entire shopping experience to see what store designs are working and which ones can improved upon, or ultimately scratched.
"We spend a lot of money on finding out what is customer friendly," said Lawlor, adding that Hess Express was launched in July of 1997 and now has more than 1,200 stores from New Hampshire to Florida. "We are pushing the envelope and asking, 'What does the customer want in the next three to five years in convenience stores?'" he added.
Like many chains looking for ways to brand an image, BP Connect offers affordable fresh foods and coffee from the Wild Bean café, while Hess Express touts the success of their All-American Hot Dog partnership.
"We have an operating bakery on site. Someone is baking breads and muffins at 2:30 in the morning and that is something you don't see often," said Dean.
"We are very focused on providing fresh foods," noted Lawlor.
While a savory aroma goes a long way, the overall design, including approaches to gondolas, lighting and coolers, will make for a more pleasurable shopping experience and, potentially, greater profit for the operator. Altering the height and width of gondolas, for example, can move more merchandise and increase overall sales.
"The gondolas are now six inches lower, giving the customer line-of-sight," said Dean of recent improvements. "You can literally see from one end of the store to the other."
Lawlor explained that the focal point of Hess Express's store design was gondolas that were only 48 inches high, which maximizes the store's offerings. "When the customer walks through the door, we want them to see comfortably across the store," said Lawlor, adding that the depth of the gondolas is very important. "If you want big sales they have to be able to hold the inventory."
Kim Trowbridge, vice president of marketing for Laval, Quebec-based Mac's Convenience Stores Inc., which has 534 stores operating in the U.S. Midwest under the Bigfoot, Handy Andy and Dairy Mart banners, sees the gondolas in a theatrical light.
"The gondola is the stage on which the product performs and the rest of the store is the backdrop," said Trowbridge. "The color makes a huge difference to both the consumer mood, overall ambiance of the store and how the product looks on the shelf," he adds.
Unified design approaches, which dovetail new equipment with older pieces is a logical transformation for businesses that constantly evolve.
According to Miller, many of his clients are buying pre-fabricated and modular cabinets and shelving units to improve their look without breaking their banks.
"A lot of people are spending time and money on design but not all are at high cost," said Miller.
As many convenience store operators no doubt have learned, sometimes failed partnerships leave stores with design and floor plan challenges to be resolved. Hess's Lawlor conceded that the company's partnership with Pretzel Time a few years ago eventually proved unsuccessful, forcing operators to do an about face and reinvent store design.
Since Hess's original design was modular it was easily remedied, he said. "Modular cabinets and shelving are easy to put in and easy to replace, which is good because nobody can predict the future," said Lawlor, adding that modular units can be designed for multi-use purposes. "Our transitional areas were built with flexibility and we have switch-able countertops. We can serve breakfast sandwiches in the morning and pizza for lunch."
When physical presentation is maximized, the logical step is lighting techniques that support revenue, comfort and safety. "Especially from a woman's perspective, we wanted to create a beacon at night so customers can have a safe shopping experience, but lighting is so important overall," said Lawlor.
Overarching design concepts that are bright and welcoming, but not sterile, have been implemented to support the shopping experience across the boards. "We have lots of glass in the entry way because it creates a open, inviting environment, which isn't claustrophobic at all," said Dean.
When designs are finalized and line-of-site is achieved the luminary of the c-store floor remains the cooler — what's in it, and what's on the way to it.
"The cooler configuration and location can have a dramatic affect on the customer experience and resultant sales," noted Trowbridge. "For example, if the cooler doors are small and the box is located to the side of the store behind tall displays, the majority of the sales it will produce will be planned purchases by people looking for the cooler," he added.
Trowbridge explained that if a cooler has large doors (what he refers to as reduced visual obstruction), and is located in a prominent line-of-sight quadrant and the configuration of the rest of the store isn't posing visual or physical obstacles, sales will be maximized.
"There are many more tricks that we use that are preparatory but the cooler is a very flexible tool to drive sales," said Trowbridge.
Miller said coolers should balance design with sales expectations.
"The use of open coolers for milk and dairy products gives a sense of volume and that it (the product) is fresh. That's what customers are looking for," said Miller, adding that older coolers, with door handles, often produce condensation, which can blur product view.
Hess uses Anthony brand coolers because of their superior craftsmanship that isn't flashy in design but promotes the product prominently, Lawlor explained. "When it comes to coolers, we want the product to be the star, not the cooler," he said.
Since trends are visual and ever changing, c-store owners must balance style with their fiscal bottom-line. "Our theme is in constant motion and changes for every store. Our underlying philosophy is to provide a customized store for every market and a customized experience for every customer," said Trowbridge.
And by changing themes that reflect customer's needs, the possibility of increasing revenue is exponential. "Since we launched our program seven years ago in my division, we have doubled average store sales and quadrupled our profits for the division," noted Trowbridge.
Make It Functional
When considering new designs, money shouldn't be the deciding factor, but rather how the equipment serves the needs of the store and the customer.
"The equipment must be robust and able to withstand the traffic, so often price is not the key driver," said Trowbridge.
Simple Simon's Glastein said he uses four standard principals when deciding on new equipment purchases: functionality; serviceability; maintenance history and cost.
But how design items and equipment function in relation to employees should be a serious consideration, Miller explained. "The design has to be in a logical place for employees to use," said Miller.
Using a coffee bar as an example, Miller added, "It has to be clean, well-stocked and be close and convenient for employees, especially if you want your customers to have fresh coffee." When his clients are deciphering what purchases will result in the best store image, Miller says he poses the question: What is this equipment going to do for me and what is my return?
"There are some things in design you have to have and some are optional but the owner is always looking for their return," he said.
While c-store chains seem to dominate the terrain, mom-and-pop c-stores survive because, in Miller's opinion, their clientele have developed a comfort zone within their design. However, even small chains and single-store operators are beginning to brand their image to keep up with larger chains and resulting competition.
"More and more people are realizing that anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the competition will go a long way to increasing dividends," said Miller. "And all these various steps in design bring the customer back, and after all, that is the point."