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    Taking Back the Convenience Edge

    This year's Future Forum provides strategies and tactics for c-stores to defend their turf against outside invaders

    By Don Longo, Convenience Store News

    Last summer, Convenience Store News provided the industry with its first look at Giant Eagle Express, a 24-hour neighborhood grocery store positioned at the intersection of convenience and supermarket retailing. In November, we attended the grand opening of Tesco plc's Fresh & Easy hybrid store in Southern California, and throughout the year reported on plans by mass merchant Wal-Mart, supermarket operator Brookshire Bros. and natural food purveyor Whole Foods to test new "convenience" concepts.

    The invasion of these and other retailers -- both domestic and foreign -- was even noted by 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto during his address at last year's NACS Show:

    "The battle to win convenience is on," he declared.

    So, how are c-stores going to win this battle? Should they mimic these newcomers that offer fresher, more healthful and/or more upscale products than a typical c-store? Should they stick to what they know and concentrate on improving conventional tactics like service quality, product assortment, accessibility, cleanliness, safety, motorist services and grab-and-go foods?

    Or, should they strike out in new directions, discover and leverage new "convenience needs," such as offering financial or medical services, using handheld devices to take in-store orders while the customer is gassing up at the pump, or adding drive-thru lanes so customers don't even have to get out of their cars?

    I don't have all the answers. But, I know that the best place to explore these issues is CSNews' 14th annual Future Forum, being held March 31 to April 2, in St. Petersburg, Fla. This year's theme is "Taking Back the Convenience Edge: Bold Strategies for Predicting Customer Needs, Creating Unique Shopping Experiences and Gaining a Competitive Advantage."

    With the help of CSNews' newly expanded Editorial Advisory Board (see page 12), I think we've come up with an agenda that will provide immediately useful information and tips for c-store operators.

    Todd Hale, senior vice president of our sister company, Nielsen Homescan, will provide a data-backed study of both old and new competitors -- from drug stores and supermarkets to the new "super" c-store concepts -- and analyze what categories are at greatest risk from these newcomers -- and what c-stores can do about it.

    Art Turock, a noted sales growth strategist, will lead an interactive session on how to undercover customers' needs before they know themselves. Following the session, he will moderate a focus group with a broad range of consumers to discuss:

    -- Where they shop and why;

    -- What they like most about the convenience stores they shop, and if they don't shop convenience stores, why not; and,

    -- What would it take for a convenience store to win their business?

    Another featured speaker, Gary Hoover, will draw on his experience pioneering a number of retail and nonretail businesses to discuss how to interpret trends and how to apply the ones that matter to your business model.

    The conference will also feature a panel of retailers discussing how to improve the bottom line. Retailers will present case studies on how they've reduced their credit card costs and energy expenses, how they've improved margins through private label, how they've streamlined their inventory ordering and accounting process, and how they've optimized their pricing strategy in-store and at the pump.

    In addition, concurrent sessions will present CSNews' exclusive sales and volume forecasts for key product categories, including motor fuels, confectionery, salty snacks, tobacco, beer and packaged beverages.

    As 7-Eleven's DePinto might say: The battle lines are drawn -- how are you going to respond to win the war over convenience?

    For more information on attending the 2008 Future Forum, contact Lois Miller at (526) 868-9563 or ldmiller@optonline.net.

    For comments, please contact Don Longo, Editor-in-Chief, at (646) 654-7489 or dlongo@csnews.com.

    By Don Longo, Convenience Store News
    • About Don Longo Don Longo is editorial director of EnsembleIQ's Convenience Store News. He has covered retailing for more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. Previously, he spearheaded the editorial efforts at a variety of business publications focused on mass, drug, grocery and specialty store retailing. Convenience Store News won American Business Media’s Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Issue of the Year in 2008 and 2012. Longo has won numerous other editorial awards over his career and is frequently quoted in the national and local news media on the subjects of retailing and consumer trends.
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