CHICAGO — Whatever steps c-store operators took during the early days of the pandemic and whatever they have in mind as they look ahead to the end of it, there is a single guiding principle they should keep in mind: be nimble, according to the "Moving On: Easing Guests’ Post Pandemic Fears" education session at the recent 2021 NACS Show.
Like c-stores did in spring 2020, retailers today need to be prepared to act quickly, but also make long-term plans. And above all else, they need to consider the human element.
"It's all about establishing trust with your customers," said presenter Mike Sherlock, chief product marketing officer at Wawa Inc.
For instance, in addition to launching a wide-ranging Wawa Clean Force initiative, the retailer opted during the pandemic not to move forward with a planned advertising campaign at a time when the company knew it would be unsafe to promote on price points and have people flooding the stores.
"We put people before profit," Sherlock said.
Cutting the bottom 20 percent of SKUs can also help customers get in and out of the store faster, offering greater efficiency with no loss in sales, he advised.
Coen Markets Inc. likewise implemented a number of physical process, but "tried to focus on the people part of it," shared Charlie McIlvaine, chairman and CEO.
McIlvaine shared a list of core principles that have carried his company through the pandemic and now toward a post-pandemic future:
Do the right thing;
Communicate with transparency;
Respect and value team members;
Treat vendors as partners;
Have a passion for winning; and
Commit to making a positive impact on the community.
Having senior company leadership inside the stores also fosters trust, as the c-store industry "is a frontlines business," McIlvaine said. Focusing on connecting via video, not just email, and highlighting team members through newsletters and other promotions emphasizes the feeling that c-stores are a community and everyone is in this together.
As the industry gets closer to seeing the end of the pandemic, having a transition process for certain pandemic-era practices can help customers adjust, such as when Wawa moved from full-service coffee to both full-service and self-service with safety precautions.
While the pandemic has required quick responses from retailers, they should continue to test before making major investments. For example, Wawa found that automated doors that opened when triggered by a hand wave, which would have cut down on high touchpoints, got very little use in reality, according to Sherlock.
At the same time, retailers shouldn't be afraid to lean into the acceleration of new ideas. Coen Markets fast-tracked its acquisition remodel program during the pandemic, moving to a new, cleaner and more appealing offer, McIlvaine noted.
The 2021 NACS Show took place Oct. 5-8 at McCormick Place in Chicago.