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    How to Build Your Own Highway to C-store Profits

    Differentiate your store by creating and reinforcing a "Unique Selling Proposition."

    By Ted Leithart, The Leithart Group

    While you may creatively imitate others, it is important to be different and distinguish your c-store from all the others in your competitive environment. You must make your enterprise special in the eyes of your customer.

    How do you differentiate your c-store? Create a Unique Selling Proposition, or USP. A USP is that distinct and appealing idea that sets you and your c-store favorably apart from every other competitor in your industry. You have no limits in building your USP, but it is best to adopt a USP that dynamically hits an obvious void in the marketplace that you can honestly fill.

    Most c-stores don't have a USP. They are a "me too." If your c-store does this, you rely on the momentum of the marketplace to line your pockets. There's no unique reason, no distinction, no great value, benefit or service you're promoting -- simply, "buy from us." No wonder your customers don't sing your praises and give endorsements or testimonies about you.

    It's also no wonder that most c-stores lacking a USP just merely get by. No wonder the failure rate is high. No wonder the owners (and employees) are apathetic. These c-stores only get a small share of their potential profits. Other than a possible convenient location, why should such stores get patronage if they fail to offer any appealing promises, features or services?

    What about offering the broadest selection in the country? Or, what about marketing your store by promoting that your markup is less than half the margin of your competitors? What about being the "Cadillac" of the industry?

    Are you beginning to see the appealing difference a USP makes in establishing a company's perceived image or posture to the customer? Are you beginning to find it crazy to operate your c-store without a carefully crafted, clear, strong, appealing USP in every facet of your c-store? The point is: focus on the one niche, need or gap that is most sorely lacking -- provided you can keep the promise you make.

    You can even create a hybrid USP that combines one marketing gap with another. Before you decide on a USP, though, be sure you can always deliver throughout your whole organization. You and your staff must consistently maintain high levels of quality and service.

    If you determine your USP is that you offer the broadest selection of products or services and they are always in stock, but in reality, you stock six out of 25 items and only a few of each item, then you're not being honest about the essence of your USP and your marketing will probably fail. It is critical to always fulfill the "big promise" of your USP. If you don't honestly believe you can deliver, pick another USP.

    Remember, the USP is the center around which you will build your success, fame and wealth. Clearly conveying the USP through both your marketing and your performance will make your store great and success inevitable. But you must reduce your USP to its bare essence.

    Try it. Prepare a one-paragraph statement of your new USP. At first, you will have trouble expressing it tightly and specifically. It may take two or three paragraphs or more. That's OK. Ruthlessly edit away the generalities, and tenaciously focus on the crispest, clearest, most specific promise you could possibly hold out. Then, rework it and hack away the excess verbiage or hazy statements until you have a clearly defined, clearly apparent USP a customer can immediately seize upon. Then, integrate your USP into every marketing aspect of your c-store, such as display advertising, direct mail and field selling.

    Some questions to ask yourself while you are developing your USP are:

    • What does your c-store do great?
    • What does your store do well?
    • What does your store do differently than the industry norm?
    • What do you do better than most of your competitors?
    • What are the primary benefits of doing business with you?
    • What are the weaknesses of your competitors?
    • What should everyone know about your business that is not widely known, communicated or articulated?

    Once you have an USP, integrating it into just your ads and mailing pieces isn't enough. You must integrate this positioning statement into every form of your marketing, and your salespeople should also clearly reinforce it. And remember to adopt a USP that you can deliver, or further marketing is useless. Also, calculate the market potential of various USP positions in terms of volume and profits.

    Take the following example: The highest marketing niche may be in the exclusive, expensive USP, but the biggest money may be made in the discount-volume USP. There's a place for both, but if you try to ride both, you'll probably die. Remember, too, that your USP is giving advice, assistance and superior service, so it can't stop with mere sales rhetoric. It must become total company conduct.

    Sit down and write an outline of your USP for your staff and how they should carry it out. Make the employees' cooperation a condition of employment. Have your staff write scripts and hold contests. Then, reward those people who distinguish themselves in promoting your USP. Set examples, so your staff can see the USP in action.

    Even after the sale, there are ways you can ensure that you stay in the hearts and minds of your customers. Here are a few good approaches:

    • Repeat your USP and remind the customers how it helped them make their purchasing decision.
    • Reassure customers about their wise decisions. Show how the same USP that served them this time will be there to serve them in the future.
    • Finally, after telling your USP, give the story on why you developed it and why it's such an advantage to them. Most customers rarely understand the benefits your c-store provides them, unless you educate them to appreciate the efforts you take on their behalf.

    A post-purchase follow-up incorporating the essence of your USP is vital. By doing so, you enhance the customer's loyalty and value to your c-store. At a minimum, a follow-up call, letter or sales appeal drastically reduces or eliminates returns, refunds, complaints, adjustments and disputes, and reassures customers of the prudence of their recent purchase.

    Good marketing requires that you give customers rational reasons for their emotional buying decision. There is a formula for success, and the USP is an integral part of that formula.

    Another way to grow is to offer frequent special promotions to customers. By offering genuine, specially priced deals or first choice, you endear yourself to them and they feel appreciated and personally acknowledged. At the same time, you enhance your customers' perception of your USP.

    Doing special offers to get first-time customers usually costs a small fortune. But, once you satisfactorily deliver your product or service and have a core customer base, you can continuously rework and resell at a very modest cost per sale. When you have a list of customers who have already shown their willingness to spend money at your store, it costs very little to go to them with additional special offers.

    Everyone in the organization should continually provide evidence to customers whether they have a problem, complaint or question that the USP is real and the entire company is enthusiastically committed to doing whatever it takes to promptly fulfill the USP promise. Any employee who does not, cannot or will not promote your USP should be immediately replaced with someone who can and will.

    Additional follow-up ideas include: send a personal thank you note, letter or a computer-typed letter to customers; send a gift or a gift certificate; send items to correspond with holidays like a box of candy on Valentine's Day or a poinsettia, turkey or ham at Christmas; send a birthday card. The possibilities are endless. When you add up the customer's value in future or repeat sales, you can probably justify a sizable investment in his or her goodwill. Again, everyone likes to be acknowledged and feel they are special.

    You should even integrate your USP into every contact with dissatisfied customers. Whenever a customer asks for a refund, replacement or adjustment, don't resent giving back money. Use the opportunity to convey the essence of your USP -- in person or by letter. Assure the dissatisfied customer of your commitment to offer more service, greater selection, better guarantees or whatever. With every refund, send a letter expressing disappointment that you did not fulfill the customer's expectations, and strongly restate your store's USP and your commitment to it.

    Always ask the dissatisfied customer to please give you another chance to make good. Make it worth their while by giving a discount certificate, a special bonus or some other preferential treatment that shows unhappy customers you want their business back, that you appreciate them and that you will make good.

    Above everything else, never, ever lose track of the fact that the USP is all about the customer.

    Ted Leithart is the founder and president of The Leithart Group LLC and creator of C-store Marketing Systems. The Leithart Group is a marketing and business-building resource provider for independent convenience stores. Leithart's marketing expertise has been utilized to build and enhance more than 500 small businesses. He can be reached at [email protected]. More information can also be found at www.TedLeithart.com.

    Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News for the Single Store Owner.

    By Ted Leithart, The Leithart Group
    • About Ted Leithart

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