Alimentation Couche-Tard's Growth Initiatives Pick Up Steam
LAVAL, Quebec — As Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. has built up its Circle K footprint through a series of global acquisitions, the company has begun rolling out several in-store initiatives to meet its customers' rising expectations.
Chief among those have been foodservice-related programs, such as the company's coffee platform and hot dog offer — both of which have spelled success for the Laval-based parent company of Circle K. Additionally, in the past few quarters, Couche-Tard began upping the ante with new digital and loyalty solutions, including its Lift upselling program and recently launched Easy Pay rewards program.
"I'm pleased with the work leveraging our loyalty programs, like Lift and Easy Pay, and unique promotional activity and gamification across the network — all part of our global efforts to drive more traffic to our stores and make our customers' lives just a little bit easier every day," Couche-Tard President and CEO Brian Hannasch said during an earnings call for the company's first-quarter fiscal year 2020, held Sept. 5.
Circle K's Easy Pay program rolled out to all of its U.S. network, with the exception of Holiday Stationstores, during the latest quarter. The retailer expects to complete the rollout at the Holiday locations in the fourth quarter.
Hannasch reported that the company is pleased with the pilot tests of the program, but it is too early to assess the national rollout. The retailer will be testing a variety of discount levels, as well as store-level incentives, to understand how to maximize traffic and penetration, he explained.
As for Lift, the in-store upsell tool, it was in almost 5,750 of the company's U.S. convenience stores by the end of the quarter, and is beginning to hit sites in Canada.
"We think with both of these, we are just beginning to scratch the service," Hannasch said. "With regards to Lift, we are pleased with the early results and we are seeing a very good conversion rate — averaging over 8 percent of customer transactions incorporating some sort of Lift promotion."
To extend its reach, the retailer is piloting home delivery in Texas with service from more than 160 stores in the Houston area. Customers can order a variety of items, including snacks, beverages and age-restricted items, and receive them in less than an hour.
"We are monitoring this closely to measure customer acceptance and how it can play out in other markets," Hannasch said, adding that the company will pilot the service in different geographies with different partners in the coming quarters.
Inside the store, Couche-Tard continues to grow its offerings.
On the foodservice side, the retailer's coffee-program expansion continues, with more than 9,000 coffee machines installed in almost 4,000 locations in the United States this year.
"We continue to see strong sales and margin results, and customer feedback has been extremely positive," Hannasch said, noting that full installation is on track to be completed by the end of calendar year 2019. "It's a great example of when we test, we find something that works and scale it rapidly."
Packaged beverages remain an especially strong category, with energy drinks, water and ready-to-drink-coffee contributing notably to same-store sales growth.
Couche-Tard is also seeing emerging growth in the alcohol space with alternative products such as hard seltzers, reflecting changes in consumer behavior.
"We are committed to staying ahead of the curve," the chief executive explained.
In its North American food program, the retailer launched a $1 hot dog promo that has delivered double-digit sales increases. Premium hot dogs are driving unit growth as Circle K converts more customers to its food program, according to Hannasch.
"Our Top Dog signature hot dog program is now in nearly 570 stores and we are preparing for a launch across all U.S. business units in the coming months," he shared.
Moving to the backbar, Couche-Tard is seeing strength in alternative tobacco segments in the U.S. and Canada, and in markets in Europe where the company is allowed to launch such items.
"We also remain committed to traditional tobacco products, and this quarter we continue our significant expansion of backbars to more locations to not only display tobacco cigarettes, but make room for the tremendous amount of innovation we are seeing in the category," Hannasch explained.
Learnings From Europe
The customer experience both inside and outside the c-store is a priority for Couche-Tard and its Circle K network on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
"In Europe, we now have about 135 newly redesigned Circle K stores across eight different countries," the CEO said. "[The work] is a complete redo of the site with attractive designs and food offerings that engage our customers."
Feedback thus far has been very strong, according to Hannasch.
Couche-Tard also has found success with direct mailers and gamification engagement tactics in driving traffic in Europe. The company recently launched these efforts in Canada and plans to bring them to the U.S. later in the year.
"We have more tools than ever in the toolbox," Hannasch said.
As of July 21, Couche-Tard's network comprised 9,792 convenience stores throughout North America. Its North American network consists of 19 business units, including 15 in the U.S. covering 48 states and four in Canada covering all 10 provinces. In addition, through CrossAmerica Partners LP, Couche-Tard supplies road transportation fuel under various brands to more than 1,300 locations in the United States.
In Europe, Couche-Tard operates 10 business units across Scandinavia, Ireland, Poland, the Baltics and Russia. As of July 21, Couche-Tard's European network comprised 2,706 stores. In addition, under licensing agreements, approximately 2,250 stores are operated under the Circle K banner in 16 other countries and territories.
Couche-Tard is No. 2 on the 2019 Convenience Store News Top 100 ranking.