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ALTOONA, Pa. -- At some point, the marketing minds at Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. determined that people wouldn't mind buying fries and a hot dog or a sandwich, made-to-order, while filling up their gas tanks.
Learning what the customer wants and giving it to him has propelled Sheetz to a leading position in the convenience store industry. With nearly 300 stores and growing at a rate of 30 stores per year, Sheetz has taken only four years to go from $1 billion to more than $2 billion in sales after taking 47 years to reach the $1 billion mark.
"We experiment a lot and have great creative people," Stan Sheetz told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Sheetz is the CEO of the business founded in 1952 by his father, Bob Sheetz.
The new store opening in Robinson Township at the corner of Route 60 and Campbell's Run Road is a somewhat typical Sheetz location -- situated at a high-traffic area, with plentiful gas pumps (in this case 18, including pumps for diesel and kerosene) selling fuel at a discount to most competitors in order to drive people into its stores.
The company doesn't seek to make money on gas, but instead uses it to drive customers into the stores, which are larger than most convenience stores.
Dave Hazelet, director of real estate for Sheetz, told the Tribune-Review that there is an effort to boost the company's presence in western Pennsylvania, and Allegheny County in particular.
Construction is to begin as early as next month on a store on Business Route 22 in Monroeville, which will be the sixth store in the county.
Hazelet said the difficulty is being able to find parcels a minimum of 1.5 acres at the crossroads of major roadways.
Aside from the Pittsburgh area, he said the company is developing aggressively in Cleveland, and is pushing into North Carolina, where it has three stores under construction.
Growth is being funded from operating income and commercial lending, which for now is good, Sheetz said, because borrowing money is cheap.
The company is constantly seeking to innovate to satisfy customers, even testing a system in Johnstown to allow customers to pay cash at the pump, even though this could decrease trips inside the store where they might spend more during the trip.
The Robinson store is home to the company's latest innovation -- Sheetz Bros. Coffee, a coffee bar where customers can order their favorite hot coffee or other hot beverage on touchscreens, just like the MTO sandwiches for which the chain has become known.
From the wall-to-wall carpeting to the massive soda fountain, Krispy Kreme doughnut station and neon blue backlighting above the cold beverage coolers, the new Sheetz doesn't look like most convenience stores.