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    Taking Center Stage

    The middle of the convenience store emerges as a key selling destination.

    By John Lofstock

    Simple Simon just did it. Sheetz is doing it. And Nice N Easy might give it a try. No, it's not a new product rollout or the next foodservice trend. Instead, these three retailers are testing a concept that moves the more popular convenience store destinations — and some of the most profitable ones — toward the middle of the store in center-island displays.

    "Coffee is one of our most popular destinations, so it doesn't make much sense for us to hide the coffee bars in the back of the store where customers have difficulty accessing them," said Louie Sheetz, executive vice president of Sheetz Inc., a 280-store chain based in Altoona, Pa. "For us, to feature coffee anywhere other than right out in the open would be sending the wrong message to customers. It's the center of our in-store offering — why not have it in the center of our stores as well."

    The coffee category has been so good to Sheetz, the company is incorporating the upscale coffee islands into the design of its new stores. The coffee island at the average Sheetz convenience store includes four or five brewing stations with approximately 10 to 12 warming stations. The island countertops are Corian brand material adorned with Sheetz' jazzy red and blue imaging. The company's design and point-of-sale (POS) merchandising received five awards over the past six months from several design and advertising firms. New units feature elaborate center-island coffee displays serviced by coffee hosts whose job is to make sure all coffee blends are brewed fresh every 30 minutes and that condiments — creamers, stir sticks, lids and napkin dispensers — are constantly full.

    "With increased competition in the coffee sales market, we created a powerful and effective campaign that aims to convert the competitors' coffee drinkers into Sheetz coffee drinkers," Sheetz said. "The ultimate success of our design or our ads, however, boils down to a good cup of coffee. We aim to provide an outstanding cup of coffee packaged with a state-of-the art retail design."

    It's been a recipe for success. In an era when strong competition dominates the coffee category, and is rapidly eroding margins, Sheetz has brewed itself a 15-percent spike in coffee sales across all company stores.

    The concept of designing convenience stores and supermarkets with center-island displays was one of the major themes at the National Grocers Association's (NGA) Synergy Showcase conference in February.

    Fran Duskiewicz, vice president and CFO at Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc., Canastota, N.Y., said the NGA show demonstrated how effective the ebb and flow of center-island displays can be.

    "The strategy behind this particular design is to move customers from destination to destination within an upscale, open shopping area," Duskiewicz said. "It's innovative and something we are going to look at closely."

    Simon Says…

    While Sheetz represents the upper echelon of convenience store companies, Simple Simon's Market, a one-store operation in Hackensack, N.J., proves you don't need to be bigger to be better.

    In June Simple Simon's wrapped up a million-dollar renovation that essentially gutted the store's interior and stripped the building's exterior for a complete image makeover.

    The result is an attractive, upscale market with nearly a dozen in-store destinations geared toward vastly different demographics, such as video rentals and magazine racks juxtaposed with a liquor department.

    Simple Simon, which celebrated 30 years in business in 2002, excels at merchandising the store to simply sell customers more stuff. Colorful center-island displays, hovering above a new parquet floor, promote sales across multiple categories. For example, sandwiches and salads are supported with baked goods, chips and beverage coolers that are available just a few feet from the foodservice display. The layout is linear in its design, leading food customers to move from the sandwich selection directly to the desserts and snacks.

    "The design at this store has been 30 years in the making," said Ryan Glastein, vice president of Simple Simon's. "Through the years we studied [customer] traffic patterns and monitored sales trends to understand what our customers want, when and why. The result was a user-friendly layout that encompasses the customers' need for quick service and upscale convenience food."

    Consumer-Driven Growth

    One of the biggest challenges for industry retailers has been getting inside the minds of consumers to learn more about what they want to buy and how they shop convenience stores. Chris DuBois, a retail consultant for Willard Bishop Consulting Ltd. of Barrington, Ill., said consumer-driven growth is a business process that creates "consumer-centric" insights into innovation at retail.

    DuBois listed four steps retailers should follow to drive growth in stagnant areas:

    Identify the points of pain. Find out what areas of the store need to be improved, as well as areas that could become troublespots down the road. For example, if new businesses, such as restaurants and fast-food units, are moving into a specific market, retailers need to have a strategy in place to protect their existing food business and plan to grow it despite the burgeoning competition. If stores in the market are redesigning, more often than not, the successful businesses will have a fresh look complete with design innovation in- and outside the store.

    Engage the consumer. DuBois suggests interacting with consumers to understand their needs and wants. Sheetz has been an industry leader in this area with coffee bar attendants. Sheetz also has two-way speakers at the gas pumps to greet fuel customers when the arrive at the store.

    Develop the consumer-centric response. Retailers should deploy a trial-and-error strategy to find what programs increase the overall basket size, ticket sale and repeat visits. Design plays an important role here. For example, Glastein said his fresh food program has always been a strong point for the store. But the addition of a new center-island gondola with fresh fruits and vegetables and on-the-go meals — which includes separate shelves for snack items and desserts — has helped nearly double sales. The gondola is strategically positioned in a high-traffic area forcing customers to notice its contents.

    "We always felt we had great exposure to our foodservice program," Glastein said. "But new lighting and a well-positioned gondola that's visible from several points throughout the store has increased our foodservice visibility and in turn boosted sales significantly."

    Making change happen. Once chains realize what customers respond to, Dubois said, managers and employees must remain committed to executing the sales plan.

    By John Lofstock
    • About John Lofstock

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