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By Mehgan Belanger
Whether you are an executive, store associate or customer inside Willkomm Cos.' latest store in Racine, Wis., you're guaranteed to feel like family. The store and company focus on inclusiveness and teamwork. From a simple "hello" and "goodbye" from every employee, every day, to a chainwide quarterly newsletter to keep employees engaged in company happenings, Willkomm Cos. is more than just an Exxon Mobil jobber.
The On the Run in Racine is the first in Wisconsin. Willkomm Cos. nailed the deal by becoming the regional franchise developer for ExxonMobil. The company built the first On the Run-branded store on its own -- making sure it liked the results before opening up additional franchise opportunities, company VP Michael Willkomm told Convenience Store News.
The new 8,700-square-foot On the Run is built on the same property as the company's first convenience store, a Mobil-branded jobber that opened on July 7, 1989. The previous 1,500-square-foot store was the first in the country to have a free-standing car wash and lube, Willkomm said.
The store has 10 fueling positions -- eight gas and two diesel -- salvaged from the original convenience store. The original had remained the same from its opening date in 1989 until 2001, when the company installed additional fuel islands and removed the existing car wash for a tunnel conveyor wash.
While undergoing the $2.2 million transformation, the location was able to keep its gas islands open for business. Willkomm Cos. did this by building the new store 35 feet away from the islands, but only 16 inches behind the original store. "We wanted it as big as we possibly could," explained Willkomm, noting that construction workers had less than 2 feet to fit between the old and new buildings. The convenience store was only out of business for four weeks in 2006 during construction, which lasted from late March until Sept. 14, when the new store opened.
"We watched On the Run for a number of years," Willkomm said. "It was time for us to jump in. When we expressed this to Exxon, they were excited. We believed they had the right formula for us."
The concept seems to be working for the company, as the first month of operation saw fuel volume total 150,000 gallons -- 20,000 greater than before the station was rebuilt, according to Willkomm.
The store offers consumers a drive-thru, where they can purchase almost anything available in the store, except for alcohol. Currently, the store sees 21 percent of inside sales travel through the drive-thru.
In addition, the drive-thru is open as long as the store is open, from 5 a.m. to midnight. The numbers the drive-thru is generating is encouraging, said Willkomm, considering big-ticket items such as wine, beer and spirits are not allowed through the window. They are located behind the point-of-sale, which is staffed by one or two associates at all times.
The store is also the first to install an E85 fuel pump in southeastern Wisconsin. The double-sided pump has sold approximately 5,000 gallons of the alternative fuel a month, and has remained consistent since it was installed. "It's going to take more education on what it is. More people have to get comfortable with having flex-fuel vehicles and the cost has to come down," Willkomm said.
A full-sized Burger King fast food restaurant with seating for 73 provides foodservice for customers. Willkomm said it was difficult to become a Burger King franchisee, but the company finally came around after multiple visits to the brand's office.
"I was beginning to think they didn't want me to become [a Burger King franchisee], after I took two trips to Miami to visit them," Wilkomm said. The problem: Burger King viewed Willkomm Cos. as an oil company, not a convenience store-oriented business, he said.
The store also supplies a wide variety of alcoholic beverages for adult consumers, offering a beer cave, wine and spirits racks. To prevent out-of-stocks while adding extra convenience, Willkomm's beer cave stocks up to 200 cold cases at a time.
Willkomm said that the added convenience of the store's layout makes it beneficial to buy beer at the store. "When you walk through the front door, you don't touch the door. You grab three cases and head straight to the counter, where there is a wide area to set purchases on.
Then you can open your wallet, pay and walk out, never opening a door. If you remove the physical obstacles, then you can expect greater sales," he said.
Stretching 9 feet long, the wine and spirits rack features a variety of alcoholic beverages and mixers to consumers. "Our license allows us to do that, I'm hoping it fits the clientele we are now drawing," Willkomm said. "When you walk in and see a line of wine, mixers and spirits, it puts you in a different category of c-stores."
To determine the wine selection, Willkomm uses the brand's planogram, along with suggestions from customers. He also adds sales by promoting wine bags next to the products, for last-minute gift ideas.
Maybe the most remarkable among the unique features in the On the Run store is its hotel-style bathrooms. The goal, Willkomm said, was to transport the customer to a place other than a convenience store. Walls are decorated with beige, 12- and 17-inch square ceramic tile and crown molding, with modern fixtures and color palettes.
"When I told my contractor that's what I wanted to do, he thought I was nuts; even my dad was skeptical," he said.
"I explained that when you open a station, there's money going into marketing and promotions. If we take some and put it into the bathroom, it will last 15 to 20 years, and you will get advertising out of it. Customers say, 'You wouldn't believe the bathrooms.' Word-of-mouth is more strategic and longer-lasting than advertisements."
If the station were not unique enough, it boasts a car wash with a special cleaning no other business in the area offers -- a pet wash.
Customers can suds up their pooch for eight minutes with a variety of solutions, including flea & tick, shampoo and skunk odor remover. Then condition, air-dry or vacuum-dry, all for $6.
The pet wash accepts credit cards, which is a necessity so that customers don't have to feed bills into a machine while struggling with their pet. The location sees 50 percent of the pet wash revenue through the card reader. Since the opening, use of the pet wash facility has grown tremendously. About 500 to 600 pets get washed every month, bringing in nearly $2,000 per month.
The store is operating so well, there are plans to install two additional On the Run's operated by Willkomm Cos. when property becomes available. Other dealers with fuel supplied by the company are interested in viewing the plans and strategies as well.
The process has left Willkomm with a valuable lesson: "I learned that when you have a vision of what you want to build, you have to sell it, not only to your partners, but you have to sell it to yourself sometimes," he said.
"If you've done your homework and you think that your vision is correct, sometimes you have to fight for it."