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By Alison Embrey - 05/03/2004
Most convenience stores rely on car traffic for the majority of their customers throughout the day, yet a customer in need of engine oil often needs a magnifying glass and a compass to find the automotive products section once inside.

As a c-store category, automotive products are often overshadowed by their high-volume brethren in merchandising, display and promotional efforts. Some retailers have caught on to this, and are beefing up their offering to include a full line of car-care products and accessories, inside and out of the store. Adding to the automotive line can not only carve out a distinctive brand niche, it can also, if done right, increase the store's bottom line.

Toronto-based Sunoco, a 65-store wholly owned subsidiary of Suncor Energy Products Inc. in Canada, conducted an in-depth strategic review of its convenience business about two years ago to determine how to best differentiate itself in the market. What the company found was a mishmash of an offer with no uniformity in terms of the stores' look and feel, and one result was targeting automotive as a major category that could use revamping. "We are putting a bigger focus on this area," said Patricia Anderson, director of marketing, Sunoco. "It fits well in that people are in their cars when they see us and often want to address emergency or general maintenance issues when they are visiting us."

Working with retail design firm Perennial Inc. in Toronto, Sunoco created the On the Move concept, a 6-foot to 8-foot merchandiser that bundles together in one area everything a car owner would need while traveling, from under the hood to a better in-car aesthetic experience. Despite working within a small store footprint, the retailer opted to locate

the merchandiser against a wall to give car care a strong presence. "The car-care area is bright orange, and has a lot of graphics and lettering to communicate what's there, whereas before it was just a gondola," Anderson said.

"It's small, it's high-impact and it's bookended by an ATM machine and a lotto machine in most of our stores, so that brings people to the area."

The On the Move concept is themed around four distinct areas related to the car: Interior (cleaners, accessories, scents); Exterior (tire cleaners, window cleaners, finishing products); Under the Hood (transmission fluids, oils, etc.); and For the Road (travel-related accessories such as calming music, soothing scents or emergency kits). "We sort of tried to communicate more what was in the offer vs. just having it sit there silently," she said. "So it is a relatively small space, but we've really punched it up and brought some focus to it by effectively merchandising the products and communicating through words and images all the aspects that we're presenting in that corner.

"A lot of people don't take care of their cars in the same way that they used to," Anderson added. "They trust their dealers and mechanics, and I think they're less educated than they were. But I think as well, we have to make the products talk a little more about what their value is and what they can deliver. There needs to be a more solution-based communication around the product, and that's what we were at least trying to do with our messaging."

Anderson added that another part of the problem is that a lot of car-care products aren't descriptive enough and don't really speak to the solution they're presenting. "They're so technically presented vs. consumer-friendly. Especially with women, because women are the ones who are dealing with messy cars with kids and spilled Cheerios and all that stuff, and I think that's a big opportunity for us to present solutions to customers on the go," she said.

The Middle Road

The industry's overall attitude toward automotive as a product category is mixed, varying from retailers who actually downplay the category so as not to detract from its other more profitable offerings, to those like Sunoco, who are making the entire back wall of their store a giant automotive selling section. Fas Mart Convenience Stores, a 142-store chain based in Mechanicsville, Va., readily admits that automotive is a tough category to invest in.

"We don't do a whole lot with automotive," said Dave Arensdorf, category manager, Fas Mart. "We basically carry the main product staples that you'll see in a convenience store. It's something that we need to have, people expect us to carry it and we do carry it, but it's not something that is a destination driver for us."

Arensdorf adds that an expansion of automotive is not something his company is adverse to doing, it's just something that's not a high priority at the moment. "You think about cigarettes, which is about a $45-million category for us a year, and then you look at automotive, and that's much less than 1 percent of that, so where would you focus?" he said.

While automotive may not be a year-round driver for some convenience stores, there is opportunity to bulk up the offering and add significant sales as a seasonal draw. "We've got some stores in southern Virginia, where it may snow once a year, up to the eastern shore in Delaware almost to New Jersey, where they have quite a cold season and messy, wet, icy days in the winter time," Arensdorf said. "Somewhere in early November, we usually do a distribution on winter-type products. We'll do window-wash displays, where we'll set out 10 or 12 cases. They might sit there for a couple weeks, but then you'll get some bad weather and it will be gone. We try to do things in preparation for the winter season."

Manufacturer Support

Automotive products merchandising doesn't have to always be left solely to the retailer. Many manufacturers offer good display programs to support their own cause, essentially doing the dirty work themselves. Lucas Oil Products Inc., Corona, Calif., has created a starter kit designed for c-store and truckstop countertops that merchandises the company's four most popular items to treat common automotive problems. The display holds Lucas Oil-branded Heavy Duty Oil Stabilizer, Fuel Treatment, Power Steering Stop Leak and Transmission Fix lubrication products.

"In a convenience store and even in small-parts stores and truckstops, room is a big factor," said Jim Terrio, vice president of sales and marketing, Lucas Oil. "They can't have four cases of products, so we said let's put the four most popular items out for display. We put three or four bottles of each in the display and put a nice backdrop on it, which merchandises it and has bullet points of what each product does. And then it's a nice cardboard display that is actually pretty sturdy."

Lucas, which has long been involved in the American racing industry through multiple vehicle and event sponsorships, also branded the merchandiser with a Lucas-branded racecar on the backdrop, which draws attention to the well-known motorsports name.

Some suppliers believe automotive products merchandising comes down to the smallest detail — the packaging of the product itself. Danbury, Conn.-based Prestone Products, a unit of Honeywell Consumer Products Group, is a manufacturer and marketer of antifreeze/coolant and car-care products that sees packaging as an important element of marketing to retail. In preparation for an intended 2004 launch of three new appearance products — Wheel Cleaner with Brake Dust Repellent, Quick Shine Detailer and Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner with Odor Neutralizer — Prestone conducted research to determine what the most effective, eye-catching packaging would be.

The entire line borrows from the home and beauty industry for mass-market appeal, with each product packaged in easy-to-use, resilient cobalt-blue bottles that are meant to stand out on store shelves. Research showed that these types of automotive appearance products cater to more than just automotive enthusiasts, so the company wanted the product to have appeal for a wider demographic through a colorful and informative package. "Virtually everybody likes to clean and protect his or her vehicle," said Jeff Bye, vice president of Prestone. "The brand needed to be sure these products visually appealed to men, women and young drivers alike."