Fresh Face Of United

United Supermarkets joins the c-store realm with United Express — a hybrid of a c-store and gourmet food store

In its home base of Lubbock, Texas, grocery operator United Supermarkets put a fresh face forward this May — right into the convenience channel.

“More than one supermarket chain has tried and failed to be successful in the c-store business,” Chris Bridgford, director of fuel and convenience operations for United Supermarkets LLC, told Convenience Store News. “But while it is certainly a crowded channel, we think we have something unique to offer.”

That edge could be what the company recently learned from its A Taste of Market Street stores. Located beside the fuel stations in the parking lots of its gourmet and fresh food-slanted Market Street stores, A Taste of Market Street is a convenient and unique drive-thru version of its larger supermarket format. In 2009, when the second A Taste of Market Street store was opened, the company admitted to CSNews that many customers were thinking of it more like a c-store, and they wanted a few more convenience items and a few less gourmet items. In this way, United got a taste of the convenience store market by backing into it.

Two years later, it's now an intentional focus with a dedicated banner and standalone format — one that Bridgford describes as “a hybrid between a typical c-store and our A Taste of Market Street locations.” That's United Express.

”Our goal with United Express is to take the offerings and products such as specially prepared foods, which have been the most successful at A Taste of Market Street, as well as those on-the-go convenience items, and blend them so guests will see traditional offerings with a unique United flair,” said Bridgford. “If a guest wants to come in and get a bag of chips and a soft drink, they will be able to do that. But if they're looking for a nice tossed salad or some other quality meal solution, those are available as well — items you don't typically find in a convenience store.”

Bridgford also referred to United Express as “the next logical step” in the development of its fuel/convenience brand. United built its first fuel station in 1997 and had already begun the process of expanding some of its existing fuel kiosks to include convenience items — four were already completed in Lubbock, according to Bridgford. “We believe a full-size convenience store provides a great opportunity for us to drive incremental sales.”

In 3,100 square feet with approximately 3,500 SKUs, focal and signed departments of United Express are “Fountain,” “Fridge” (frozen and chilled drinks), “Locker” (beer and wine) and “Fresh To Go” (foodservice). Other sections include general merchandise, grocery, candy/snacks and lottery.

With the company's core competence, as well as its A Taste of Market Street background, fresh/prepared food is clearly a highlight.

“United Express will showcase many of the best attributes and lessons learned from our A Taste of Market Street locations,” Bridgford explained. “The outstanding quality and freshness of the food selection at our Taste locations will be evident and apparent in our United Express locations as well.”

Moreover, the company considers its infrastructure and logistics base “a competitive advantage by enabling us to deliver fresh/prepared food to our convenience locations without having to integrate kitchens and staff into the actual c-stores themselves,” according to Bridgford.

United Express is also showcasing a walk-in beer locker, offering “an extensive selection and quantity of ice-cold, quality beer, very competitively priced,” he said. Additionally, the new c-store will offer a unique and extensive selection of both warm and chilled wines, “the likes of which are seldom found anywhere else in West Texas convenience stores.”

United Express shoppers are offered a significantly expanded section of the traditional convenience store food items, as well as some not traditional. “A convenience store owned and operated by a grocery chain could not be short of grocery items, so we will also have a very broad selection of grocery and general merchandise items as well,” stated Bridgford. “For us, the challenge and appeal is to extend what we do best in the supermarket channel into the convenience channel.”

He added the concept is “simply the continuation of a tradition of providing quality products, outstanding guest service and competitive pricing offered in a slightly different format.”

United Express has definite “future plans to expand the concept,” according to Bridgford. “Initially, we're looking for United Express to complement our existing market area, which is entirely Texas-based at this time.”

While the convenience store is meant to stand on its own, it might also be found on the property of other United Supermarkets stores. “United Express locations in the future could very well be found in parking lots of United Supermarkets or Amigo locations, as well as be standalone operations,” Bridgford said. “Where it makes sense, United Express will complement our other core supermarket locations, but we also think it should prove viable on its own.”

This first location is the first phase of development for a 12.1-acre tract in Lubbock that United purchased in 2008. Plans call for the company to open a full-size United Supermarkets store on the site within the next three years.

The May 4 first day of business for United Express was actually a “soft” opening, Bridgford said. Full-fledged marketing efforts began May 25. After the grand opening campaign, ongoing marketing plans will include radio, fuel pump toppers and in-store signage.

For comments, please contact Renée M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].

Bottom Line

In 3,100 sq. ft. with approximately 3,500 SKUs, United Express is the “next logical step” in United's fuel/convenience development.

The company considers its infrastructure and logistics base a competitive advantage to deliver fresh/prepared food.

Where it makes sense, United's c-store locations will complement its core supermarket stores.

Five Prongs

In its 95th year of operation. United Supermarkets LLC is a Lubbock, Texas-based, family-owned retail chain with stores in 30 markets across north and west Texas. It is a self-distributing operation with distribution centers in Lubbock and Roanoke. The company operates 54 stores under five banners: United Supermarkets, Market Street, A Taste of Market Street, Amigos United and now, United Express.

■ United Supermarkets represents the core concept of the company with 37 stores in 24 markets.

■ Market Street combines everyday grocery items with specialty items, whole-health/gourmet products and pre-prepared foods. There are 10 stores in nine markets.

■ A Taste of Market Street is a drive-up miniature version of Market Street, located in the larger format's parking lots. There are three locations so far.

■ Amigos United is the company's international-format store for Hispanic customers, currently with three locations.

■ United Express is the company's standalone convenience store format featuring traditional on-the-go items with a unique United flair. So far, there's one location.

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