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NEW YORK -- Operating a convenience store is a lot harder than it looks, according to the staff of Convenience Store News, which has been moonlighting for the past year -- working day and night shifts at a new small-store concept they opened a year ago in the heart of Times Square.
The plan, according to CSNews Editor-in-Chief Don Longo, was to open a laboratory store where the editors could test new products, merchandising concepts and marketing ideas -- then write about those ideas in the magazine and Web sites, including its Spare Change blog.
"The idea was born a couple of years ago when each editor worked in different convenience stores for two days as part of a special editorial report," explained Longo. So, when prime real estate in Times Square became available at the site of the former Broadhurst Theater when the play Les Miserables closed down after more than 7,000 performances, CSNews snatched up the highly trafficked location.
"It seemed like a no-brainer," continued Longo. "Not only could we test new ideas to share with our readers, but in today’s current media slump, the extra revenue from selling cigarettes, hot dogs, soda and beer would come in handy."
However, the laboratory store was plagued from the start by numerous setbacks -- many of which underlined the inexperience of the editorial staff. "Hey, I never had to mop the bathroom floor when I worked at Jacksons," said Executive Editor Tammy Mastroberte, as she shed a tear over her new water-logged Jimmy Choo heels.
Two weeks after opening, the 24/7 Convenience Store was picketed by the New York City Hot Dog Cart Union, which demanded that the site obtain a license to sell hot dogs in Times Square.
Then, a unique marketing campaign that gave free coffee to Broadway actors who agreed to sing in the store backfired when a thug dressed as the Phantom of the Opera robbed the place at gunpoint one night.
Another innovative marketing plan boomeranged when police had to be called to break up a fight between Times Square’s noted Naked Cowboy and Longo, who had tried to take over the guitar-playing, underwear-and-boots-clad cowboy’s act in a failed attempt to promote the new store. "We didn’t think that idea through,” said Longo at the time. “And, it didn’t help that the only musical instrument I know how to play is the harmonica."
Then, just last week, Publisher Mike Hatherill’s newest promotional scheme went awry when he was arrested for spray painting the store name on the side of a mounted police horse.
Early attempts to gauge shopper reaction to the store fell flat. Research Director Debra Chanil attempted to do customer intercepts, but unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to categorize the responses: "fuhgedaboutit," "outtamyway," and "whoyoulookin’at?"
Despite those setbacks, the 24/7 Convenience Store was recognized by industry experts for having some of the most innovative merchandising ideas ever unveiled in the convenience store industry. Such as:
• Street-Life Department -- recognizing the increasing number of homeless people on city streets in the wake of the financial collapse of Wall Street, the editors created a special department to supply former stockbrokers with the essentials for their new street-life. Merchandised in a 10- by 10-foot area in the back of the store, the department featured cardboard boxes that could be used as building supplies, used blankets for bedding, re-usable foam coffee cups to hold either hot liquids or coins, cigarette butts and shopping carts (collected from the nearby Trader Joe’s). The department was so successful, the increased traffic from the former stockbrokers bolstered sales in other departments, particularly alcoholic beverages. “We probably sold more Thunderbird and Night Train Express wine than any other store in the city,” commented liquor department manager and Associate News Editor Mehgan Belanger.
• Tax-free Cigarettes -- "With the highest cigarette taxes in the nation, we realized we had to do something drastic to stay in this important traffic-generating product category," noted Longo. Luckily, Senior Editor Barb Grondin Francella is a member of the Ojibwe tribe. After putting ownership of the store into Francella’s Native American name -- Hehewutti, meaning "warrior mother spirit" -- and claiming exemption from the onerous state and federal excise taxes, the store was able to sell popular brands of cigarettes for just $30 per carton, compared to over $50 elsewhere. In a related event that greatly improved store morale and teamwork, Senior Editor Linda Lisanti "volunteered" to undergo the secret ceremonial rites to become a Ojibwe, taking on the name Sinawa, meaning "fox that sleeps late."
• Footwear Resoles Service -- Recognizing that it would be impossible to install gas tanks in the middle of Times Square (a major security risk), the 24/7 Convenience Store came up with this innovative idea for walk-in traffic. A shoe resole service became a popular amenity to serve the millions of tired feet that trod past the store.
The store’s exterior façade, designed by CSNews’ award-winning Art Director Ana Rodrigues, was singled out by the NYSPTSSI (New York Society for the Preservation of Times Square’s Seedy Image) for how well it upheld the aesthetics of the surrounding community.
Business at the store boomed last summer following a highly publicized incident when celebutards Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan stumbled in at 4 in the morning and bought out the store’s entire stock of energy shots. After that, the store became a popular site for celebrities and celebrity-watchers such as E! News, PerezHilton.com, and TMZ.com. The lines got so bad -- often winding around the block and into the surrounding streets -- that the situation served as impetus for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial proposal to close Times Square to vehicle traffic and make it a pedestrian mall.
Unfortunately, the huge crowds became the store’s undoing. As typical waits stretched to over 45 minutes, CSNews’ staffers could no longer handle the stress and angry customers, contributing to the decision to end the experiment. "And we just heard rumors that our 24/7 Convenience Store was going to be featured in NACS Ideas to Go at the show this year," lamented Longo, who added he was proud of the effort. "I think it was a learning experience, both for and about our editorial staff."
CSNews wishes all our readers a Happy April Fool’s Day.