Cutting Edge Store Design at Future Forum

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Cutting Edge Store Design at Future Forum

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Retailers and designers of three innovative new convenience store concepts gave attendees the inside scoop on the thoughts behind their plans at the 13th annual Future Forum, hosted here by Convenience Store News on Monday.

At the conference's opening session, called "Cutting Edge Store Design," retailers and designers behind the development of Home Depot Fuel, Gaubert Oil Company's new Go-Bear casino truck stop and The Market @ Jodeco presented floor plans and photographs of their new store concepts and talked about the thinking that went into their designs.

Tom Ertler, creative director of WD Design in Columbus, Ohio, talked about how his firm collaborated with home improvement giant The Home Depot to create the first of what is currently five Home Depot Fuel c-stores. "It's all about language," said Ertler. "Before you create drawings you have to describe the brand the way you would describe people -- what are the intangible attributes of the brand?"

Ertler used terms like "expert" "rugged and masculine," "active" and "reliable" to describe the attributes that were of utmost important to the Home Depot brand. These attributes were then incorporated into the design so that the new c-store would be "a natural extension of the Home Depot brand."

At 2,733 square feet, Home Depot Fuel sits on relatively unutilized real estate in the parking lots of Home Depot home improvement stores. "We basically looked at where there were no oil stains," said Ertler. "Since no one was parking there, this space became prime land for a c-store."

As an extension of the big box stores, Home Depot Fuel brandishes the same type of polished concrete floors and exposed HVAC ceiling as the big box. The exteriors are kept clean, with minimum window signage. The stores open an hour before the big box, and close an hour after. The customer mix has been pretty much what the retailer expected, said Ertler -- contractors during the day; consumers on the weekends.

"I think they [The Home Depot] realize their core customer is very similar to a c-store customer," said Ertler. "And, they were looking for a way to utilize space better and increase same store sales. They are taking an underutilized asset and getting a return on it."

Grady Gaubert, president of Gaubert Oil Company, and Lou Saiz, director of design for Duke Convenience Group, presented an example of developing alternative profit opportunities. Gaubert, a full-line petroleum company which operates 12 stores along with a dealer network of 70 units in southeast Louisiana, worked with Duke to create a new casino truck stop in Thibodeaux, La. The 8,500-square-foot store sits on five acres and incorporates a casino, a restaurant, a backcourt designed for truckers and a c-store.

Gaubert spoke about how the heavily state-regulated gaming industry forced the company to incorporate certain procedures into its operations and design, such as the need for a license to serve liquor, stay open 24-hours, and have a restaurant. Other aspects of the design were made to better service customers, such as separate entrance and dining area for truckers, unobtrusive entrance to the gaming area and warm colors in the c-store. The company also created a new brand for the new entity, calling the store, "Go-Bear," a play on the company's family name.

Results have been fantastic, according to Gaubert, as the store has exceeded all its initial operational goals, including gallons pumped (225,000 gallons per month vs. a goal of 125,000) and in-store merchandise sales ($85,000 vs. $45,000).

Richard Bell, director of Investment Property Advisors, and Ken Dalton, president of MRP Design Group, both in Atlanta, talked about Bell's new The Market @ Jodeco store. Bell described how, as a investor and developer, he'd seen the direction of retailing toward more lifestyle merchandising. "What is Starbucks doing? What are the grocers doing?" Bell asked himself and decided to step into the c-store arena with a store featuring a family-friendly environment -- a store "that would appeal to soccer moms."

Working with MRP, they opened The Market @ Jodeco in Henry County, Ga., south of Atlanta. The objective of the store was to offset low fuel margins by emphasizing grab-and-go foods, coffee, and fountain drinks and to offset high real estate costs by building a sort-of shopping center where two retail units on each side of The Market could generate rental income (The Market is 4,000 square feet, flanked by two 1,200-square-foot rental units).

The Market is differentiated from other c-stores by its upscale looking (but relatively inexpensive) artificial limestone exterior finish and interior island-type merchandising, high-end shelving and displays. "Half the store is dedicated to self-serve items," said Dalton.

The entire store was built for $2.8 million, including land, said Bell. After five months of operation, Bell said the store was close to, but not yet, breaking even. "Over half our sales transactions are to females, and our customers are asking for more gourmet candies," said Bell. "Our biggest problem is finding distributors who can sell us the gourmet candies and grab-and-go items that traditional c-store distributors don’t handle."

Future Forum continues today through Wednesday at the posh Renaissance Vinoy resort.