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    First Look at Neighbours

    Petro-Canada's new foodservice-oriented concept bundles convenience for consumers.

    By Don Longo

    CHICAGO -- Many American retailers got their first look at Petro-Canada's new Neighbours retail concept last week during a presentation entitled "Store Design from the Perspective of the Consumer" given at NACS' annual data conference last week in Chicago.

    Ed Burcher, senior director of foodservice for Petro-Canada, gave a 45-minute presentation on the Canadian oil and gas company's conceptualized, built and tested new retail concept. "We knew we had to get beyond the traditional c-store," said Burcher.

    Burcher said the first step was preparation, which involved doing a lot of homework, including looking for inspiration from great retailers outside the convenience store industry, such as The Apple Store. "You can't copy because you don't have the same systems and culture, but you can look at other retailers for inspiration," said Burcher.

    Petro-Canada, which bills itself as "Canada's Gas Station," had to decide where its capabilities overlapped with its opportunities. This meant "being brutally honest about what we do well and what we don't," said Burcher.

    This meant listing the company's strengths, including:
    -- Real estate
    -- Loyalty program
    -- ATM network
    -- Innovation
    -- Sell stuff
    -- Great gas brand
    -- Competitive operations

    As well as looking at consumers' need that were not being met, including:
    -- Bundled convenience
    -- Home meal replacement
    -- True hospitality
    -- Choice and control

    Neighbours represents a solution for consumers, according to Burcher. The whole design and planning process required the petroleum company to change its product focus "from impulse to destination" and change its customer focus from the road warrior to the customer on the go.

    Burcher showed photos of Neighbours that illustrated the store's focus on being authentic, contemporary and truly Canadian.

    "We had to be perceived as a Canadian brand."

    He added: "One of our goals was to be an 'indescribable' store. "We have achieved that goal based on our research."

    A photo tour through the store shows that food is the hero. The layout is designed to force the traffic flow through the food section where workers dressed like chefs all face the customers from the kitchen area. No actual cooking is done at the store. The workers reheat and assemble "restaurant quality" sandwiches, grilled paninis and other dishes.

    The store also employs touch-screen video ordering terminals and a pour-your-own coffee program (a rarity in Canada). Other non-traditional c-store touches include a drive-through window and outside patio for diners who want to stop and eat.

    More traditionally, the company put in 16-foot open refrigerated cases in its larger stores to make room for more alternative beverages. Traditional gondolas though were removed in favor of four-way merchandisers. "They provide a more open look," said Burcher. "We lost some shelf space but we're getting higher sales since putting in the four-ways."

    There's another dining area in the store that accommodates as many as 15 seats in larger stores and as few as four seats in smaller stores. "We don't want people to stay all day like at a Starbucks, but we do want to offer a place to sit and eat," said Burcher.

    There are currently 15 Neighbours in Ontario.

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