Apple of Their Eye

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Apple of Their Eye

When Workman Oil Co. was offered the opportunity to build a store the only convenience, grocery or drug store in a newly-planned development of 250 houses, 250 condominiums, 250 townhouses, a retirement community of 1,000 seniors, and 70 specialty shops and restaurants, the management team jumped at the chance – even though doing so meant having to jump through a score of hoops to satisfy the developers.

Opened last June, the company's newest Apple Market is a 5,000-square-foot store in Wyndhurst, an upscale "sidewalk community" in Lynchburg, Va., modeled on small-town America with its own "town center." With two entrances – one to cater to residents coming in on foot, another for gasoline customers – the store offers an extensive line of fresh hot and cold foods, groceries, health and beauty items, snacks and beverages, beer, wine and more. With a variety of $1 products, $50 bottles of wine and $12.50 cigars, the store's operators aimed to satisfy as many customers as possible, while keeping Wyndhurst's demanding developers happy.

"It was very clear from the beginning that if we wanted in, we had to play by their rules," said Warner Hall, president and co-owner of Workman Oil, the Lynchburg-based operator of 33 stores. "In the first meeting, the developers said, 'Just understand, we don't want a store like a Sheetz in this development. If that is what you are going to build, we don't want you to build here.' They didn't want a big red store that looked like a bright spaceship with a lot of pumps."

Instead, the developers were counting on Workman Oil to build something similar to the brick-faced Apple Market that Workman Oil had opened in another upscale area of Lynchburg several years ago. "They were very choosy in who they partnered with here," Hall said. "This was our first new store in four years, and we were ready to take our industry learning and put it in place."

First, the Workman Oil team's in-house design, largely the product of Hall, operations/merchandising manager Larry Bowling and co-owner Robert Workman Jr., had to pass three levels of approval: the Wyndhurst development committee; the Wyndhurst design committee; and the city of Lynchburg development committee, which included the mayor. "Wyndhurst has gotten a lot of attention from outside the city, and no one wanted to mess it up," Hall said.

The team went through 11 different site plans. "It came down to things like the type of shrubbery we have in the landscaping," Hall noted, adding the store has six BP-branded gas pumps.

At one point, the development committee wanted the store's gasoline canopy to match an elaborate fascia design on the outside of the building. "Our canopy maker just laughed and said 'You can't do that,'" Hall recalled. "The committee didn't realize what they were asking. The canopy company met with them and explained it."

Still, being the only c-store in the market made the effort worthwhile. "And we were generally on the same page from the beginning," said Bowling, who noted that the store is expected to reach sales maturity in 18 months.

Inside the Apple
Today, the store boasts such touches as a granite countertop on the coffee bar, lit by an antique lighting fixture, Corian-like surfaces at the foodservice and checkout counter, and antique dressers in its two tiled bathrooms. "Compared to other stores in the area, we feel we have raised the bar," Workman said.

For all its beauty, the store was not easy to merchandise. "We have a very diverse clientele," Bowling said. "There are commuters using the main street as a cut-through, so drive time is busy here. There are retirees, young families and apartment dwellers, as well as customers coming through to shop at the upscale clothing and specialty shops, and members of the YMCA. There are also a lot of construction workers, because the development is still being built.

"We're still feeling our way, trying to cater to as many people as we can – for instance, selling good-for-you snacks for the Y crowd — without diversifying ourselves out of business. We can't be all things to all people," said Bowling

Approximately one-third of the store is devoted to foodservice, which is sold from a mini foodcourt setup, with customers queuing up in front of five different blackboard menus – chicken and other entrees; sandwiches and salads, hot dogs, pizza and a morning-only breakfast offer. Two or three employees man the foodservice counter, and foodservice customers pay at the store's central checkout area.

Apple Market's fine reputation for fried chicken made that program a given. But knowing more health-conscious customers also would be frequenting the store, the team added rotisserie chicken and other healthier fare, such as tuna and other salads, to the menu.

On the other end of the food spectrum, the store's pastry case features handmade donuts and other specialties from a local bakery, Bill's Pastries. Delivered fresh daily, the goodies are marketed under the Bill's Pastries name. "They are not the uniform Krispy Kreme donut," Hall said. "They all look different and have different colors. Someone who does not know the history of Bill's may think, 'What's wrong with these donuts?' But people in Lynchburg recognize them and come back every day."

Other fresh foods, including salads and desserts, are merchandised from an open-air grab-and-go island. "I knew the case would do well," Bowling said, "but I didn't realize how big [sales off of] it would be."

The store's coffee and cappuccino business has kept employees hopping to tend to 16 pots. The store's fountain area offers a 12-head unit featuring both Pepsi and Coke products.

Because Wyndhurst developers have not allowed any drug store or grocery store in the community, the Apple Market is stocked with more grocery items than typically found in a c-store, including more HBC products and take-home sizes of groceries, Bowling said. The store has a 4-foot section of produce and 12-foot section of dairy products with milk, eggs and bread carrying everyday low prices.

Also inside, a 10-foot-by-12-foot beer cave, featuring a larger-than-typical imported beer mix, is highlighted by a three-dimensional, semi-circle sign declaring "Ice Cold Beer." The store's wine shop offers 160 different varieties.

"We price the wine like a grocery store would and fill our customers' requests for specific wines," Bowling said, noting the store has received temporary licenses for on-premise wine tastings.

The popular $1 section includes cleaning supplies, large sizes of HBC items, paper towels, tissues, plastic plates and other products needed by the store's neighborhood. "The latest research on dollar stores shows the concept is gravitating from appealing only to lower-and middle-income shoppers to higher-income shoppers who are looking for a deal," Bowling said.

Outside the store, the gas pumps are equipped with a new couponing system by Gilbarco. A second screen on the pump displays a rotating set of 12 messages, such as a coffee promotion or ad for 50 cents off a brand name cough syrup, and customers can press a button to receive an in-store coupon.

"It has been helpful in letting people know the variety of products sold inside," Hall said. "We don't promote traditional c-store items as much as we do our foodservice and grocery products. Sometimes, the screen is just a message, for instance advertising our EDLP [everyday low price] on eggs."

hough happy with the program now, the retailer plans to partner more with suppliers who may underwrite the cost of some of the branded promotions. "In a big city, a customer driving an extra mile to go to a specific c-store may be ridiculous. But in a smaller city like Lynchburg, where traffic is not bad, people don't mind driving to the other side of town. We have to consider every class of trade in the entire city – and they can be tough to compete with."