Are Your C-stores Delivering the 'Wow' Factor?
NATIONAL REPORT — Does your current store concept include a “wow factor?” If not, it should.
Customer expectations are continuously elevating thanks to the proliferation of great retail experiences — think Nike Town, Apple Store, Wegmans supermarkets and Eataly food markets, to name a few.
“Since convenience is a common thread, design is becoming the catalyst for differentiation,” said Joseph Bona, president of Bona Design Lab, based in New York. “Design will get more sophisticated and will be an important line item in establishing budgets, as opposed to thinking whatever paint is the cheapest.”
Good design should neither be created in a vacuum nor based on individual personal tastes or current trends. Rather, according to Bona, “it should be focused on a firm understanding of what your brand stands for and the storytelling that you deliver through an enhanced store experience.”
To discuss the ins and outs of merchandising with “wow,” Convenience Store News tapped Bona, who has extensive retail design experience across all sectors, from convenience and mass market to drug and luxury, as well as Jennifer Hatton, senior vice president of retail operations for Follett Corp., an expert in the world of campus retail stores. Here are their insights:
CSNews: Why is in-store experience so important these days?
Hatton: The in-store experience is more important than ever in the c-store landscape because the consumer is more sophisticated than ever before. Options are endless, and the expectations are higher for companies to not only deliver an aesthetically appealing environment that is clean and bright, with fresh offerings and breadth of assortment, but also friendly and engaged associates that provide consistent and exceptional customer service.
Bona: In today’s highly competitive retail landscape, where all channels of trade are competing on convenience, consumers are faced with many options and choices in meeting their daily needs. Convenience is no longer a differentiator, but rather a table stake. Experience is how best-in-class retailers are winning customer loyalty and distancing themselves from the competition. An enhanced retail experience enables them to establish a unique position in the marketplace and separate themselves from the sea of sameness that is often found across many retail chains.
CSNews: What are some of the simplest ways for c-stores to tap into this?
Hatton: Start with the basics: Convenience customers are looking for efficient, high-quality service with in-stock and well-merchandised products. Food should be fresh, and planograms should be current at all times. The overall environment should be clean, from the front windows to the exit, and throughout the entire store, from floor to ceiling. It is important to reduce sign pollution in the windows and to be consistent with fixture height. Training for team members is also critically important to effectively meet the needs of the on-the-go customer who expects an experience that is fast and efficient.
Bona: Most importantly, it must start with each company and its unique individual stories and positioning. Experience is not only about what color to paint the walls, the type of lighting that is used in the environment or the style of graphics that deliver your messaging. Rather, it needs to begin with what makes your brand different from those of your competitors. It’s all about storytelling — delivering your message in your own way. All successful brands stand for something specific. Experience is how they curate that message throughout their built environment.
So, the simplest approach (remember, simple and easy are not necessarily synonyms) is to begin with defining what you stand for. In this regard, I love to visit Maverik markets because their stores truly reflect the company’s culture. The adventurous store environment at Maverik is a testament to how both employees and customers embrace the great outdoors. The store experience is their “signature.”
CSNews: What are the more outrageous ways a c-store can offer an experience?
Hatton: I believe it’s through innovation that uses technology, such as Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machines or Pepsi’s Spire beverage machines, and robots that are making salads. Another way is through new products, including new on-trend bakery items and fresh-baked cookies in-store, as well as fresh sandwiches, salads and sushi from local, respected restaurants. We are even piloting an edible fresh scoop cookie dough program with a company that was recently featured on “Shark Tank.”
Bona: Today’s shoppers are savvy, and authenticity is important to them. If you try to push “outrageous” gimmicks on them, they will call you out — and they have no shortage of social media channels with which to do that. None of this is to suggest, though, that you must be timid. I have always believed creating that engaging experience starts with the exterior. Curb appeal is what customers see every day, even when they don’t stop into the store. So, being a bit disruptive or a little outrageous can get customers’ attention and help you stand out from the crowd. However, you risk disappointing customers if the promise made on the outside is not carried through on the inside. Retailers must commit to delivering a 360-degree customer experience.
CSNews: What are your best practices for c-stores to create a “wow factor?”
Hatton: Top practices that are sure to create a “wow” experience are the continued introduction of contemporary design elements, such as stones, woods and luxury vinyl tile. Also, LED energy-saving lighting and spotlights surgically placed to highlight product, along with sleek fixtures at the point-of-sale that elevate the brand. Offering organic, gluten-free products and premium coffees are just a few examples of products that can not only create a “wow” factor, but also add credibility and trust to your assortment.
Bona: First and foremost, create experiences that are authentic and built around giving meaning to your offer. If, for example, you have a robust food program, take cues from the restaurant industry, where higher-end establishments use open kitchens to show off how clean, precise and proud they are of how they prepare and deliver their food. Why not incorporate open kitchens in a c-store environment to help establish your food program as being first-class?
In addition, lighting is always the most misunderstood and most underutilized tool to create “wow” moments throughout the retail environment. Too often, retailers look to use uniform light levels to light their spaces, but highlights and contrasts are what creates drama. They enable you to feature key products or offers and make the shopping experience more enjoyable.