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    A C-store Wild Child

    United Oil steps out of the box with its ideas on petroleum marketing and customer service.

    By Renee M. Covino

    Talking pumps, magic wands and outrageous architecture might sound like Disneyland, but it's actually part of the everyday business at a very different Southern California attraction: Gardena, Calif.-based United Oil. With these features and more, it's no wonder one United Oil convenience store became a tour attraction, not unlike a visit to Disneyland, for international retail attendees before the NACS Show last year.

    "They had a busload [of attendees] from Europe and Asia who came to Southern California before the show, touring seven to eight retail sites, including one of ours," said Jeff Appel, the secretary/treasurer of United El Segundo, what he calls the "proper name" of the family-owned business started by his grandfather, John Appel, more than 55 years ago, and now headed by Ron Appel, his father and president. "I was told they were looking for new ideas from American retailers who weren't afraid to do things differently," Appel said. "That's United Oil. We're a little wild."

    For starters, the company partnered with Gas Station TV to create "talking pumps," turning gas customers into their personal television audience.

    In a unique take on at-the-pump merchandising, many of the gas dispensers at United Oil's 120 stores now feature the closed-circuit televisions, which, as a revenue source, run suppliers' commercials. They also promote the chain and act as a customer information resource in current, relevant ways, according to Appel.

    "When gas prices were extremely high -- around $4.30 a gallon -- we wanted to show our customers we weren't making that much money," he explained.

    Gas Station TV seemed the perfect opportunity for United Oil to get that message across, so the company created a "teaser" video where customers were made to feel as if they were being directly spoken to by a voice at the pump representing United Oil, asking, "Take a guess. What do you think we make on a gallon of gas?"

    According to Appel, "We waited a few seconds to give customers time to consider it, and then we had the video respond, explaining we gross only 17 cents, but when we take out the credit cards fees and such, it was even less -- more like 8 cents. We educated our customers that we're not making the big bucks here."

    United Oil also uses the TV system to lower the incidence of costly accidents involving gas pumps. "People drive off with the nozzle still left in their fuel tank, and it's expensive for us. It was happening hundreds of times in a month across all of our stores," Appel said.

    Now, Gas Station TV lowered the incidence of this with a "Don't be a chump at the pump" slogan and videos, making consumers more aware of the problem before an accident occurs.

    And commercials being run on the system are often in partnership with suppliers. "We did one recently with Monster Energy where we showed a tired guy and his girlfriend slowly walking into the store, slowly selecting Monster, slowly paying, slowly walking back to their car, and then after they drink it, they go in fast motion," Appel relayed.

    Most of the content that appears, including educational information, company messages and supplier ads, is reviewed and updated on a monthly basis, according to Appel.

    A Little Magic Dust
    The goal inside every United Oil store is for employees to achieve a superior level of customer service through a company program called, "I got it." Employees are encouraged to get there with teamwork, dedication -- and even a magic wand.

    "Everybody's been through the typical customer service, but what does it take to train a cashier to say, 'thank you/have a nice day?' That's not a true customer service interaction, it's just expected," Appel asserted. "We wanted to go beyond that, and build a real connection to the customer. Even more importantly, we wanted to build connections employee to employee."

    So five years ago, Appel came up with the "I got it" program, and said he has been "really pushing it" for the last two years. "We want it to be like a virus going around the company, and if you get it, you can be happier in your job and make those around you happier," he said.

    Employees who successfully go through customer service hurdles get nominated, and then make it through to the "I got it" level, where they get rewarded with a pin. When all employees in a store have pins, that store becomes eligible for "We got it" certification, and at that point, employees earn an extra dollar an hour. But this is a difficult accomplishment.

    "We didn't make it easy. I don't give out certification to a store very often," he stated. "Many have been shocked and disappointed, and some have even been turned down twice already." So far, only 17 stores out of 120 have made it, according to Appel.

    So how, exactly, does a United Oil store attain its "We got it" status? There are guideline steps and mystery shopper store checks, but ultimately, it's a long journey.

    Appel described the slow process, whereby positive customer service stories are shared from store employee to store employee, as one goes off a shift and another one comes on. It is during this daily "storytelling" process -- when employees describe how they did "the right thing by a customer, such as controlling their anger, that they are encouraged to wave the magic wand, which every store is equipped with, and pass the learned attitude and behavior on to the next shift, according to Appel.

    Even in California, many employees find the magic wand routine a bit over-the-top -- "many won't do it at first, and that's okay," said Appel, adding more get on board with it over time.

    "They're supposed to do it every day at every shift change, but there's no penalty if they don't," he explained. "What's amazing is, 50 to 60 percent of the time, they're taking part in it. Employees get really curious about it. We instill in them that if they do the right thing, they can really make a difference and that would be a great 'I got it' story to share."

    Appel admitted the wand is just a prop, of course, but the entire process often has a profound effect on store employees. "When they start to get it, it's like a light going on, and they want to share what they've figured out," he said. "It's about honestly making mistakes, but then correcting them, and not just being a good employee, but really growing as an individual. Those that succeed with it notice it makes a real difference in their lives -- and in their family's lives."

    Beyond the employee focus on improved customer service, United Oil makes customers a part of the equation too. It periodically designates 'Customer Comment Days,' established as part of a store achieving its 'We got it' level. They are also implemented if a particular station or store receives "more complaints than we would like," he said.

    "We do have customer comment cards available in our stores at all times, but we think this is much more effective," he said. Periodically, a booth is set up at every store, whereby bottles of water are handed out, and complaints and comments are taken in.

    "Anybody who wants to, can just come over and talk to us freely about our stations, our cashiers, the company or whatever they want," Appel explained.

    For those who do choose to use customer cards, they are promised a call back from a United Oil manager or company representative within 24 hours. In fact, the '24-hour-return-call policy' applies to everyone in the company, according to Appel.

    "Internally and externally, we promise a response to questions and comments within 24 hours," he stated, explaining the policy was put into effect when a cashier complained it took several days for the main office to respond to her calls. She did this at one of the "Customer Community Meetings" United Oil holds every six weeks, where it gives a few cashiers, station managers, supervisors, office personnel and truck drivers the opportunity to express any of their concerns and complaints.

    "Everybody is given their chance to speak up," he said.

    To see images of United Oil's unique store designs, click here.

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