Competition in the convenience store industry continues to increase, leading many operators to step up their game not only to stand out among the crowd, but also to meet the needs of customers and keep them coming through the doors. One of the ways they are doing this is through innovation, including rebranding, refreshing and remodeling their stores.
Outdated stores are being updated; in-store layouts are changing; and in some cases, an entirely new logo, color scheme and brand are being created. How do operators know when it’s time for a refresh? Many rely on instinct coupled with research.
“The NACS/Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council did a study on how to evaluate your sites, and we took that study, did some surveys and came back with where we rated the lowest, which was customers’ perception of value,” Jeff Miller, president of Norfolk, Va.-based Miller Oil Co., told Convenience Store News about the rebranding his company — operator of 26 convenience stores — is embarking on now.
“We knew we were competitive on prices, so we had to retool and create a better perception of value; going to market differently,” he explained.
Further up the East Coast, at NOCO Express based in Buffalo, N.Y., the decision to remodel/rebuild its 36 locations also involved research. The c-store chain brought in experts to perform a market analysis, which included studying the demographics, new houses being built around locations, current traffic counts, and even contacting the Department of Transportation to see if there were any road improvements underway, according to Michael Newman, executive vice president and co-owner of NOCO. The company has also targeted stores with sales declines or ones that were visibly showing signs of age.
“It is very data-driven, and we also look at the stores themselves to see how tired they are,” Newman said of the remodel/rebuild strategy. “The remodels are the same footprint, but feature new equipment. And any rebuilds feature our brand-new format, which is around 6,000 square feet in total and includes new foodservice partners.”
Another route, chosen by Savannah, Ga.-based enmarket (formerly Enmark Stations) is consumer focus groups. The chain, operating 60 locations, wanted to gain a better understanding of what its brand meant to the general public. These groups validated what they suspected, said Matt Clements, director of marketing.
“The Enmark brand resonated well with consumers, but it was mainly known as a brand that carried competitively priced, high-quality gasoline,” he said. “Our stores are evolving into a destination where you can find fresh food, healthy snacks and much more than just quality gas, so we felt a slight change in our name and a bigger change in our logo would better reflect what we were doing inside the stores.”
The stores are now known as enmarket, and the logo features the words, “Fresh Choices, Friendly Faces.” The entire team felt the brand was in need of a refresh, but the focus groups confirmed it for them, Clements explained.
CRAFTING A REMODEL
Making the decision to remodel, rebuild or create a new store prototype takes time and planning. For most companies, the plan gets modified each year.
At NOCO Express, leaders work off a five-year plan, but review it and make modifications every year. This year is dedicated to refreshing the brand through remodeled and rebuilt stores.
For those being remodeled, changes inside the store include new graphics, equipment, countertops, cabinets and light fixtures, along with adding open-air coolers and expanding some of the craft beer selections. Changes outside the store include installing LED lights and implementing energy management systems.
“We have a good team doing space and sales analysis to look at the space we are using and the sales we are generating from it,” Newman explained. “We also do some local demographic tailoring. For example, we have a store near a university where we have a sizeable craft beer selection that we might not do in another area.”
For those NOCO stores being rebuilt based on the new, larger format, the chain is partnering with branded foodservice providers, including Tim Hortons, for a “store within a store concept,” said Newman. Rebuilt stores are around 6,500 square feet vs. remodels at 2,500 square feet. So far, NOCO has remodeled 15 stores and rebuilt eight.
Yet another c-store chain giving its network a makeover is Alon Brands LLC, the largest 7-Eleven licensee in the United States, which has been doing remodels and is now focusing on new builds using a new store prototype.
Legacy Alon 7-Eleven stores were built in the late 1970s to mid-1980s. The company wanted to “raise the bar and be different,” said Jonathan Ketchum, senior vice president.
“We needed to innovate and make a quantum change if we wanted to compete in today’s demanding environment,” he explained. “We needed to expand our product mix by adding fresh choices and prepared foodservice.”
In the past three years, Alon has built three new stores and continues to evolve the design based on feedback from customers. Once Alon’s management made the decision to build new stores, the company brought in a design firm to help hone the overall message and convey it to customers.
“We knew we didn’t want to replicate our existing look. We wanted to set ourselves apart,” said Ketchum. “We had not built a new store since 2007 before embarking on this new prototype. We did start an aggressive remodel program in 2011 and have completed over two-thirds of our store base.”
The new Alon prototype is 4,500 to 5,200 square feet, compared to legacy stores at 2,400 square feet, and offers either branded foodservice or in-store dining with seating. The overall design goal is to be attention-grabbing. Bright and colorful graphics are used, the fascia logo is being upgraded, and an embossed 7-Eleven logo is incorporated into the stonework.
Similar to NOCO, Alon tailors its stores to the demographics of the area. For example, its Rio Rancho, N.M., prototype store offers an upscale wine selection, with a wine wall featuring 225 slots for wine and two built-in refrigerators with chilled white-wine varietals, Ketchum noted. In contrast, its El Paso, Texas, location was built to cater to international transport drivers traveling between Texas and Mexico, so this store offers a different variation, namely trucker supplies and quick-service-restaurant hot foods.
“Our initial new build moved the checkout to the rear of the store, but we reverted back to the side-justified register area in the following new builds,” Ketchum said. “However, in both cases, the feature area is the foodservice and dispensed beverage sections. We built a design that directs the flow to these high-profit and highly desired products.”
So far, 20 Alon 7-Eleven stores have been remodeled to incorporate some of the new elements from the prototype design. Going forward, the retailer plans to carry on the new design and theme as the chain continues to refresh its network.
RECREATING A BRAND
When the strategy is to rebrand a company and its stores, a number of factors are involved. However, the biggest one is customer perception.
At Miller Oil, management realized they were not doing the best job at promoting the Millers brand. Being part of a study group, Jeff Miller brought in fellow group members to view some of his stores. Many suggestions were made about the image.
“Last time we did an overhaul and converted to Millers Neighborhood Markets was in 1998. If we are going to grow the business and not get out of it, then we have to be relevant and stay current,” Miller said, explaining that in addition to advice from his peers and industry research, he spoke with customers. The company sells Shell gasoline, and while on a university campus where one of the stores is located, he talked to a few graduates. He discovered they knew the store as the Shell station rather than Millers.
Today, in addition to branding the gasoline as Millers, the chain shortened its name from Millers Neighborhood Markets to just Millers, while streamlining and modernizing the logo. The rebrand started at the forecourt and will now be moving inside the stores.
“The overall goal was to modernize our image because we were looking dated. To remain competitive, we had to modernize,” said Miller. “From our survey work, we also knew we had an issue with value, so that pushed us toward the Millers branded gasoline, and we have more competitive prices there, too.”
The new Millers store design inside is focused on refreshments, which has surpassed cigarettes and many other categories in terms of profitability, he said. There is a more extensive fountain offering, plus its placement is more prominent. The chain is also partnering with nationally branded, quick-service restaurants, including Dunkin’ Donuts, and the color schemes and materials used are now different as well.
“The only thing we haven’t finished is the graphics package. Once that is done, we can adapt it to the rest of the chain,” Miller told CSNews.
Rebranding is more than just the look of a store, stressed enmarket executives.
The rebrand of Enmark to enmarket was a decision made as a team, where they examined the brand to make sure it was in sync with the future direction and purpose of the chain, said Clements. New design elements, a new logo, new products and a renewed commitment to their people and communities are among the changes being made.
“The stores were rebranded previously around 1990 when the company officially adopted the name Enmark Stations Inc.,” Clements recalled. “Now, there is a fresh theme throughout our brand — from our logo to our products to our uniforms.”
Because rebranding is more than just the look of a store, companies need to pick the right partners to help them, advised Clements. A chain needs to be clear in communicating what is behind the brand. For the new enmarket, the rebranding was about what they stand for, their mission and purpose, and their people.
“Recruiting and employing people who share the same vision as the company creates the continuity throughout the organization that is necessary to effectively communicate your brand to the public,” said Clements.