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NATIONAL REPORT — Despite studies suggesting that gender diversity has a positive impact on company performance, it’s no secret there are not enough women in leadership positions in corporate America. While the convenience store industry has shown signs of improvement, work remains to be done in its efforts to hire, promote and support female employees.
“There has been progress, notably in the petroleum marketing industry, which has traditionally been male-dominated,” said Joan Toth, c-store industry veteran and president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women (NEW), the retail and consumer products industry’s largest women’s leadership organization. “But the c-store industry’s corporate leadership is still mostly male and mostly white. It does not reflect the diversity of our customers or our workforce.”
Benefiting From Balance
Research indicates that balancing input from both men and women often leads to better strategies for realizing company goals.
A 2011 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, reported that companies with three or more female board members outperformed those with no women directors. Moreover, these companies experienced an 84-percent higher return on sales, a 60-percent higher return on investment capital and a 46-percent return on equity in at least four of the five years analyzed.
Flash Foods, a Waycross-Ga.-based chain of more than 170 convenience stores in Georgia and Florida, is one retailer finding that gender diversity pays dividends.
“As more females take on leadership roles within our company, the combined talents of both genders become a great asset,” said Jenny Bullard, chief information officer for Flash Foods and one of five Women of the Year who will be honored in Las Vegas in October at Convenience Store News’ 2015 Top Women in Convenience awards reception. “This becomes very apparent in departmental meetings, when [hearing] the views and discussions of both genders results in the best strategy for our company goals and continued success.”
Considering a female’s perspective when making design decisions, for example, improves the overall shopping experience, Bullard noted. “And both genders being part of product decisions and how and where those products are displayed in the store can lead to [attracting] more female customers,” she added.
Allison Moran, CEO of Atlanta-based RaceTrac Petroleum Inc. and a 2014 CSNews Woman of the Year honoree, stressed that the perspectives of RaceTrac’s five female senior executives are an invaluable part of the company’s business structure.
“Because we offer more diversity of thought and are sharing a greater variety of ideas at the table, we end up seeing greater results in strengthening our brand, developing a loyal customer base, increasing revenue and greatly decreasing voluntary turnover across the organization,” Moran explained. “As women’s influence in the industry continues to expand, there is an opportunity to engage in a greater conversation and this will only increase the likelihood that the industry will continue to prosper and overcome new challenges.”
Texarkana, Texas-based E-Z Mart Stores’ CEO Sonja Hubbard, another 2014 Top Women in Convenience honoree, added that while gender diversity is vital to the future of the c-store industry, diversity across all lines is what’s most important. “How can we properly serve a diverse customer base if our operational teams aren’t representative not just of the same gender, but also [of the same] race, age, orientation and more? A group of people with diverse ideas opinions and backgrounds just makes better decisions,” she said.
Wooing Female Shoppers
With women making or influencing 93 percent of food purchases, as well as being the sole or primary breadwinner in 40 percent of U.S. households with children, it’s an opportune time for c-stores to focus on meeting the needs of female shoppers, stressed Toth of NEW.
It’s especially important given the fact that women visit c-stores nearly as much as men. According to a 2014 study from the Minneapolis-based General Mills Convenience & Foodservice division, 66 percent of women visited a c-store during their weekly routine, compared to 69 percent of men. The study surveyed 474 convenience store food and beverage shoppers, aged 18 to 64, who visited a c-store at least once a month.
Women, the General Mills study concluded, place a greater emphasis on the store environment and shopping experience, and greater scrutiny on foodservice items.
Bullard concurred, pointing to lighting, clean restrooms, healthy food choices and an open, safe environment — in addition to a diverse array of merchandise that appeals to women — as important to attracting female customers.
Women, like men, are time-starved and seek the convenience a c-store offers, Hubbard added. Among other upgrades, she said E-Z Mart has worked to expand its coffee offerings with fresh cream, flavored creamers and cappuccino options and has added yogurt, fruit and other fresh items that are valued by female customers.
E-Z Mart restrooms are upgraded as well, with an emphasis on cleanliness and a move toward touchless restrooms with mirrors and brighter lights.
“Male customers value this service and do compliment our restrooms, but female customers are much more outspoken in appreciation of these upgrades,” Hubbard said. “This influences their decisions on where they stop — exactly as we want.”
Championing Gender Diversity
While the industry has a long way to go, there’s plenty that forward-thinking companies can do to further gender diversity in the workplace.
A good first step would be to recognize what Toth calls an “unconscious bias” toward women. Instituting family-friendly benefits and work arrangements for mothers are initiatives that could represent an attitudinal shift.
“It will help retain parents of both genders, attract millennials, widen the talent pool, boost family income and create economic growth for all,” Toth said. “We also need to change how our companies — the organizations themselves — work. To advance women, we must broaden the experience and exposure of high-potential women, encourage sponsorship and stretch assignments, and create more flexible career paths. Women often work in specialties that are less likely to lead to senior leadership. They may be less able to relocate. Women lack role models, sponsors and access to senior leadership.”
RaceTrac has placed an emphasis on creating a gender-diverse environment. In 2014, for example, the company introduced LEAD, a women’s initiative created to help its team members Link, Empower, Achieve and Develop by offering a forum to discuss leadership topics and develop future leaders. RaceTrac also uses an internal initiative called HIRE (Hiring Internally Referred Employees) that encourages internal referrals at its stores and Store Support Center.
The benefits of gender diversity extend beyond individual companies, Toth added.
“The c-store industry has been looking to broaden its customer base since its beginning,” she concluded. “It’s not a stretch to say the industry is going to rise — or fall — with our women customers and employees.”