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    A Taste of the C-store Market

    United Supermarkets opened its second small-format store tailored more toward the c-store shopper.

    By Renee M. Covino

    Lubbock, Texas-based grocery chain United Supermarkets LLC backed into the convenience store market by building miniature versions of its format right in the same parking lot.

    It wasn't meant to be a convenience store, just a convenient and unique drive-thru version of its larger gourmet grocery store. But in 2006, when United's specialty chain Market Street put the first 1,300-square-foot "A Taste of Market Street" store in its Lubbock store parking lot beside the fuel station, customers were definitely thinking c-store.

    Now, two years later, after gaining some experience and customer feedback, the second A Taste of Market Street recently opened in Frisco, Texas, with a little less specialty and a little more c-store emphasis.

    "We started out thinking of this not as a c-store, but as just a 'taste' of what our customers would find in our larger store, only in a more convenient parking lot location with a drive-thru door," explained Wes Jackson, chief operating officer of United Supermarkets.

    Thus, the "mini Market" store was originally overloaded with the gourmet items the "big Market" store is famous for -- artisan breads, choice bakery items, gourmet meals to go and more.

    It's not that those items aren't still found in A Taste of Market Street, but typical c-store items were given more play, since that's what customers revealed they wanted, Jackson said.

    "We were trying to be too much of a taste of specialty items and our guests told us they wanted more of a regular c-store. They wanted their breakfast burritos, fountain drinks and toilet paper, too," Jackson explained. "We now have a full complement of what you would expect to find in a c-store, including bags of ice."

    So out came the items that weren't doing well, such as some specialty and organic products.

    The highlights of the continually evolving A Taste of Market Street concept currently include:

    -- Peet's Coffee: "It's popular on the West Coast and it's been popular for us too, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where there are a lot of folks who have moved from the West," Jackson said.

    -- Dinners for two: "We address people in a hurry with this," Jackson noted. "If all they have time to do driving home from work is to pick up dinner, we have meals packaged for two available out there." This is an extension of the big Market Street stores, which have 10 to 14 percent of store volume in the prepared food area, according to Jackson.

    -- Seasonal selections: "We take some of our seasonal merchandise out there. The one I'm particularly thinking about is Valentine's Day," Jackson stated. The offering includes greeting cards and roses.

    -- Fresh Baked Goods and Produce: "Our distribution center and our manufacturing plant are in the same parking lot of our big store in Lubbock," Jackson explained. "Just like in our grocery stores, everything is fresh that morning from the big store. Some items just have a few hours shelf life, and if it doesn't sell, it comes out."

    -- Wine array: The expanded Frisco store boasts a 49-square-foot wine selection. "It's not large, but we have some of the most popular wines in the area -- we just offer a taste of what we have in the larger store," Jackson said. "We don't do our highest price points -- we try to stay reasonable with none higher than around $20."

    -- Light on beer and tobacco: The "just a taste" concept is also carried out in beer and tobacco for that matter, and is perhaps the biggest way that A Taste of Market Street distinguishes itself from a typical c-store. "We don't intend to be a No. 1 stop for beer or tobacco products out in our small footprint, but we want guests to get the most popular items at a convenient location," Jackson stated. The stores also do not offer lottery.

    All of A Taste of Market Street's offerings can be ordered and hand-picked by staff at its drive-thru door.

    "As we learn the nature of each location, we staff accordingly," Jackson said. "But currently, we're working those service times in less than a minute, on average. We may be serving the first and second car in line at the same time."

    However, the big challenge, Jackson admitted, is to get more customers to fully understand the concept. "They don't get it right away," he said. "So we have to educate them."

    This means engaging customers at the pumps where visual signs and pre-recorded audio messages are played on a regular basis, typically mentioning bakery and foodservice items.

    At the big Market Street grocery stores, the "little store" message is also being passed on by signage, checkers and occasionally over the loudspeaker.

    Meanwhile, A Taste of Market Street is also getting its education with each new unit it opens.

    "Each location is new and different, so hopefully, we can build from each one of them," Jackson stated. "In Frisco, we started out being more basic and less organic. With a future location, we may find we need to go more specialty. We're going to tailor to the taste of the guests who come to each location."

    Some "tweaks" for future locations have already been determined, such as expanding the freezer section.

    "Right now we just have single-serve frozen novelties out there, but we found there's a demand to add half gallons of ice cream and also a few frozen items we got requests for, such as Hot Pockets," Jackson said.

    Fountain beverages will also get more play. "We're taking a page from traditional c-stores," Jackson stated. "We can probably triple our fountain space and selection."

    The company determined every future Market Street store with room in the parking lot will get A Taste of Market Street to accompany it. For 2009, two additional stores are slated to open -- the third is expected to be unveiled this month in Coppell, Texas, and the fourth is set for April in Plano, Texas.

    "We're committed to the format," Jackson said. In fact, that commitment will expand beyond the Market Street sidekick. "We will also carry this format along with any new United Supermarket that we open," he stated.

    Because of its distribution set-up, the chain is staying with its Texas focus for now. "We would need a second distribution center, which we don't have now, but expect we will in the future," Jackson stated.

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