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ALTOONA, Pa. -- Who are the authorities on the future of the convenience store industry and what can you learn from them? In this series of exclusive one-on-one interviews with c-store industry leaders, Convenience Store News Editorial Director Don Longo explores the more important trends and issues facing the convenience industry.
This month, Longo interviews Stan Sheetz, former CEO and now chairman of Sheetz Inc., the 450-plus convenience store chain based in Altoona. A former NACS chairman, Sheetz was inducted last week into the Convenience Store News Hall of Fame. Under his leadership, Sheetz Inc. experienced aggressive growth in number of stores and employees, achieved impressive financial success, and maintained a healthy culture to create a highly motivated and passionate employee base.
Earlier this year, Sheetz Inc. was also named to CSNews’ Top 20 Growth Chains list and last October, the retailer was honored as the gold medal winner as Best Prepared Foods Innovator in CSNews’ 2012 Foodservice Innovators Awards program, sponsored by Tyson Foods.
Longo: What do you consider to be the most important trends influencing convenience stores and retailing today?
Sheetz: I think the biggest trend revolves around the mobility of people in America. Our industry thrives on people moving, being active, going to work, to the mall, etc. If you look back over time, you’ll see that as the total number of miles driven by Americans has grown, this industry has been able to add more and more stores.
But now, we see this growth curve threatened. Young people have different attitudes about how they live. They’re able to connect with each other via technology like never before. Technology is driving down the number of miles driven by Americans. The Dick Tracy wristwatch communicator of my youth is now a reality for today’s young people. They don’t have to drive to grandma’s house anymore. Amazon.com makes it so that you don’t have to drive to the mall anymore. You can order everything you need for Christmas presents with a small electronic device. Technology is changing the world, and changing it rapidly.
We need to give people a reason to come visit us. Tomorrow’s convenience store must be more of a destination than just a stop along the way to somewhere else. If we don’t do that, our customer counts are going to deteriorate.
Longo: How will technology change the convenience store business over the next three to five years?
Sheetz: The best way to predict the future is to create it. The whole payments battle with the credit processing industry is pretty amazing. In 1990, we didn’t accept any plastic at all. Now, 70 percent of our volume is on credit or debit cards, and that percent is growing. We didn’t even have card readers at our fuel dispensers until 1992.
I can’t begin to predict whether consumers will embrace the mobile wallet. They might, but my biggest concern is security – ID theft and credit card fraud. I hope that the whole security issue gets resolved. It’s too scary to contemplate how vulnerable you’d be if you lost your phone. But, if the security issues are resolved, it would be great. We can take food orders over the phone – we’re right at the beginning of that with our Sheetz app.
Longo: What role will alternative fuels play in the future of the convenience store business?
Sheetz: When it comes to fuel, it’s hard to predict what the customer is going to fall in love with. The technology for storing electricity for automobiles still seems to be far away. If the changes in fuel preferences are incremental, the c-store industry should have no trouble adapting to it. It may take 20 years for electric vehicles to get to even 3 percent of all vehicles.
When it comes to ethanol, I don’t think it’s a good idea to grow corn for fuel. The market is not screaming for ethanol. It’s only happened because it was driven by Congress. We’re not Brazil, where they use sugar, which is cheap. Corn is not cheap to grow or transport. All fuels are transitional fuels – first, there was wood, then coal, then oil. What’s next?
Longo: Switching gears, what are the foremost non-industry specific issues on your mind?
Sheetz: Philosophically, I’m very concerned that Washington is showing the world how not to make democracy work. Those guys have really screwed up our government. You’ve got to be concerned when you see the consequences of how they have mismanaged the government.