TEXARKANA, Texas -- Sonja Hubbard, CEO of E-Z Mart Stores Inc., owns up to being the type of person that's never satisfied and the convenience store chain she leads is proof positive of that.
From 2001 through 2004, E-Z Mart underwent the first phase in its evolution: a "resizing” of the company. The retailer sold or closed more than 200 underperforming locations after finding itself highly leveraged with new, big-box competition and compressed margins in a down economy
The second phase, which has been ongoing for the last 10 years, is "rebuilding" E-Z Mart. After taking a hard look at each store, the chain is razing and rebuilding locations where the real estate is available and remodeling locations where property is not available to do a new build.
While the rural-based organization has always been a lean operator, Hubbard said there are uncontrollable pressures on cost today and therefore, every store needs to turn a higher volume.
"We turned 44 years old this year, and we all need a little work. Sometimes, you have to put a little lipstick on," she joked. "So many of our stores were acquired or built years ago. …We got the company resized, and now we're taking our assets and upgrading them."
The new stores E-Z Mart is building are larger and more open (4,000-5,000 square feet vs. 2,000), offer more fueling positions, deliver quality foodservice and provide nicer restrooms. They were designed by looking through the lens of the brand's tagline: "Making Life Easier for You."
For instance, the No. 1 thing customers come in to purchase is a beverage, so the new stores put beverages front and center. They don't make customers walk through multiple aisles to get to the coolers. Instead, to still capture impulse sales, bump-outs were added to the checkout counter where the stores merchandise the top add-on items, according to Hubbard.
"Consumers can get a bottle of water or a bag of chips anywhere. So, the more we can do to get them in and out of there fast and serve them more conveniently, the better," she told CSNews Online.
To date, about half of the company is either rebuilt or remodeled, with E-Z Mart pouring all free cash flow back into the business for the past 10 to12 years. To supplement its cash flow and expedite its efforts, the company recently secured financing through Wells Fargo.
"I think the numbers from our new stores reflect that we're on the right path," Hubbard added.
The next phase for E-Z Mart will be unit growth. The 300-unit chain has been static in store count for a few years now, as it's been adding stores but also selling off locations at the same time. With the new financing, Hubbard expects to once again see E-Z Mart's store count rise. And this growth will not just come organically; the retailer is also looking for acquisition opportunities.
With a wide footprint that spans from Lubbock, Texas, to the middle of Louisiana and then up to the edge of Arkansas and back down to San Antonio, the chief executive sees one of the company's greatest opportunities going forward as "filling in" its operating area. Filling in will improve its efficiencies and distribution capabilities, especially in regards to foodservice.
"There's no store count I'm shooting for," Hubbard said. "I really just want to have quality stores in locations that serve the community."
For more on E-Z Mart's evolution and a look at the people working behind the scenes to make it happen, check out the August issue cover story of Convenience Store News.