CSNews Exclusive: Nice N Easy Goes Social

CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- With the advent of the social media age, businesses large and small are developing profiles, fan pages and more to connect with consumers. Not one to be left in the dust, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, a chain of 78 convenience stores based here, launched an arsenal of digital marketing strategies recently -- including a Facebook fan page, a mobile rewards program, a YouTube channel and more -- in an effort to communicate directly with customers.

"It is so important that retailers communicate with their customers where they want to be communicated with," explained Jared Sturtevant, director of category management for the c-store retailer, in an exclusive interview with CSNews Online. "If any retailer does a search on Facebook, more than likely it will find not one, but many Facebook fan pages for the company. [There are] tribute pages, pages by people who hate [the company] and pages posted by store employees that might be for their specific store. Bottom line: If you don't know what is going on, you better assign someone to find out."

A small group of employees at Nice N Easy had lobbied to launch a Facebook page for some time, and after NACS 2009, Sturtevant got the green light to begin the project, he said.

"It is an emerging area of interest, from tweens to middle-aged moms," he said. "My favorite reason [for being on Facebook] is that if you are on Facebook, your customers think you're cool. If you're not, well guess what?"

Since launching its fan page in 2009, the chain has a little more than 1,200 fans, which Sturtevant admits is lower than the chain would like -- the ideal number of fans for a chain of its size should be between 5,000 and 10,00 fans, he said -- but he expects its Facebook fans to double in size over the next few months.

To grow its fan base, Nice N Easy is using a few tricks it has seen success with, including simply asking fans to use the "suggest to friends" feature on Facebook, where fans can follow a prompt to tell their Facebook friends to also 'Become a Fan' of the company.

Engaging customers at store level has also shown an immediate impact, according to Sturtevant. Nice N Easy stores feature a cooler static cling that resembles a "Find us on Facebook" button, which is placed on high-volume doors. The social networking fan page is also promoted through direct mail and in-store fliers.

"We have had weeks where hundreds become fans, and weeks where we lose one or two fans. It is a fun way to market, and we are learning more every day," he said.

Sturtevant gave the following advice for other c-store chains looking into or beginning a social media presence on Facebook: "Treat your Facebook page the same if you have an audience of 10 or 100,000 -- stay current, stay active and don't have too many people with administrative capability. You want the message or voice to be consistent."

Moving Into Mobile
Nice N Easy didn't stop its digital marketing blitz at social networking. The chain also recently rolled out a TEXT Marketing Club that rewards enrolled customers with discounted or free products.

The mobile marketing program is a version of a rewards program that allows Nice N Easy to market to its customers via cell phones, Sturtevant explained. Customers can opt in or out of the program by simply sending a text message. To enroll, customers text message the word "Easy" to a five digit number, and in return, receive a text with their first free offer, the PLU and the expiration date, which is shown to the store cashier for redemption.

To encourage customers to join, Nice N Easy offers a free coffee or fountain drink upon sign-up.

"The goal of the program will be to be able to instantly market items to our TEXT members at specific day parts," Sturtevant told CSNews Online. "If we want to drive traffic in the a.m., we can send a text at [rush hour] offering a discount on coffee."

But the decision to dive into mobile marketing was not made lightly.

"We strive to stay current, but also insist on doing things right. It has been a couple months' process to get this off the ground, preceded by a couple years of contemplating whether or not this is a viable way to market," he said. "The timing was right and we finally found [a vendor] we feel gives us the best opportunity to do this the right way."

The mobile marketing service provider is a telecommunications company that approached Nice N Easy offering a full program, complete with in-store point-of-sale, TV advertising, expertise and ideas, according to Sturtevant, who noted the stores also feature small window signage promoting the mobile club, and store associates also provide word-of-mouth details to customers.

Tuning Into YouTube
Nice N Easy also developed a presence on viral video Web site YouTube by posting its TV commercials, both old and new, on its own YouTube channel. Accessible at www.youtube.com/user/niceneasygroceryshop, the videos online as of press time included one inviting customers to celebrate its 30th anniversary; a commercial for the chain's coffee in which Nice N Easy Founder and President John MacDougall literally gets blue in the face; and others where MacDougall is chased by a herd of cows, appears with "Pablo" the donkey and milks a cow.

The convenience store retailer also used the channel to direct viewers to its new commercial before it officially aired.

Acknowledging that the channel may be used more by employees than customers, Sturtevant said the chain plans to post consumer- and employee-submitted videos in the near future.

On the Digital Horizon
Nice N Easy is exploring e-mail marketing for its next digital marketing project, and is looking for the right company to assist the chain in implementing a campaign.

"There is nothing people hate more than spam, so this has to be handled with much care," explained Sturtevant, noting the chain chose to explore mobile marketing first since it's a "hot" new technology and more people have cell phones than PCs.

Other marketing technologies slated for launch in the coming months includes a coupon program with Americu that will print coupons on the front of receipts from the chain's in-store ATMs. In addition, Nice N Easy plans to unveil a redesigned Web site in the near future, Sturtevant said.

And as for Twitter, Nice N Easy is evaluating the social network's long-term viability before jumping onboard.

"[In my opinion], Twitter has evolved into a method of stalking celebrities. I'm not a fan of it, but that doesn't mean we won't use it someday, [provided] it doesn't crash and burn like Friendster or fade out like Myspace," Sturtevant said, adding: "Our TEXT program is similar, but is a better way to reach our customers. It comes at a cost but includes additional marketing and support."

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