Going with the Flow

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Going with the Flow

By D. Gail Fleenor - 09/17/2007
It is the perfect c-store, with the best facility and service, and good gas prices. But if the store sits on a poorly chosen site, a "For Sale" sign may loom large in its future. Visibility, traffic flow and demographics are some of the variables to consider for successful site selection. And while many c-store operators select their own sites, others opt for the advice of outside experts. For this article, Convenience Store News asked retailers and consultants/engineers about some important steps in site selection.

Good site visibility is a top requirement for a successful c-store location. However, seeing the site and easy access may not go hand-in-hand. "We look at the visibility-reaction ratio of a site," said James B. Fisher, CEO of the Houston-based IMST Corp., which specializes in retail site analysis. "The ratio is based on distance, speed, obstacles or barriers -- either natural or manmade. When the potential customer sees the site, is there adequate time for access?"

John Dzwonczyk, president of the Avon Lake, Ohio-based JGD Associates, an architectural and engineering team serving petroleum marketers, also stressed the importance of visibility. "Customers have to make the decision to pull into a site before they're upon it," he said. "They want to see the pump islands to see if there's a space open, which means they will be more likely to pull in. Good visibility also can mean it is safer to get in and out of the site."

Rick Smith, vice president of retail operations for Grandview, Wash.-based R.H. Smith Distributing -- which operates 13 Smitty's convenience stores -- looks for "the best exposure possible" when considering sites. "You want to be able to see your site in time to pull in. If a driver does not have time to switch lanes or maneuver through oncoming traffic, they keep on going to the next site."

That appealing corner site at the intersection of two busy thoroughfares may seem ideal, but consider traffic flow before signing on the dotted line. "Heavy traffic flow can be a mixed blessing," said Patrick Fiedler, president of the Fiedler Group, an architectural, design and engineering firm in Los Angeles. "A site can become land-locked by heavy traffic and difficult for customers to exit. Customers are like water -- they flow along the path of least resistance." Fiedler recommends consideration of the intersection size, number of lanes, whether there is a right-turn lane in front of the site and restrictions on left-turn movement such as medians. "A site limited to right turn in and right turn out only isn't a good situation," he said. According to Bill Morris, president of the Houston-based Morris & Associates engineering firm, a median-separated boulevard with no cuts can decrease a site's volume by as much as 50 percent.

"Moderately high traffic is great, but extremely high traffic can be a detriment to a site," said Mike Newman, executive vice president of NOCO Energy Corp., a 930-store chain in Tonawanda, N.Y. "I think it is a balance." He added that heavy traffic can choke the flow at a corner site, causing customers to avoid it. "You may encounter resistance from town officials if you seek curb cuts on a busy corner site -- that can hurt," he said. Many companies, such as Smitty's, have been forced to sell sites because of too much traffic. "When cars stack up at the light, customers cannot get in or out," Smith said.

A corner site at the intersection of two main arteries occupied by an older gas station can be attractive. Robert Buhler, president and CEO of Open Pantry Food Marts, a 30-plus store chain headquartered in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., searches for such sites for "up-imaging."

"We won't buy a site if the ingress/egress won't accommodate what we want to do. You have to look at a corner site and see how much the Department of Transportation will make you modify the ingress/egress -- it is essential we get that straight prior to purchasing."

There is not always an ideal traffic count number for a site, but there are guidelines, Dzwonczyk said. "If you are not getting 25,000 cars daily past your site, it will be difficult to afford a first-class offer." However, a traffic count acceptable for one site may be too low for another due to trade area differences and other issues.

"In our world, we don't look at traffic counts," said Brian Fisher, president/owner of Fisher Stores in New Bern, N.C., which operates 14 Fuel Market stores. "Any four-lane road is a possibility in our area. Traffic is good, but it is preferable to have high traffic in front of a site and lots of bedrooms behind you -- that's the one-two punch."

"To make sure there is enough traffic to insure a 'fair share,' I would look to see a traffic count between 25,000 to 30,000 cars per day past a site," said Lew Claycomb, chief operating officer of 15-store chain Quarles Food Stores, based in Fredericksburg, Va. With the exception of too many competitors nearby, business adjacent to a site is viewed positively. "The more businesses and growth projected for a site's immediate area, the better. Anything that brings traffic to or around your site should be encouraged. If you run your business right, it will always give you more opportunities to win a customer," Claycomb said.

"It is always advantageous to situate your store in an area with other businesses to provide additional traffic and offer synergies to your business," said Marty Anderson, president of the c-store division at APPCO Convenience Centers in Blountville, Tenn.

Smith offers one stipulation about adjacent business. "If at all possible, like in new-growth areas, we prefer to be the only fuel in sight. We look for developments where there is a variety of business, but we are the only convenience store," he said.

Sizing up a Site

Consideration of a site's demographics may be as important as ingress/egress to a site's success. "Traffic counts don't tell the story of a site -- demographics do," Fiedler said.

Statistics showing population, income, age and education can help c-store operators gear a store's offerings to its customers. "Demographics are extraordinarily important to a quality c-store site and the type of offering you put there," NOCO's Newman said. "If it's an inner-city site, demos can guide selection, layout or customer walkup capabilities. With a suburban site, you might add a different beer selection or more 'take-home' food to serve the family."

"We think demographic information can be critical to a site's success," said Frank David Capitano, principal of The Radiant Group, with 14 stores around its Tampa, Fla., headquarters. "We try to understand who we're targeting and make sure our offerings appeal to them. We don't use the 'throw a dart in the board' approach. We invest considerable money in land so we really want to know our customers."

Consultants and retailers agreed that a potential c-store site must be at least 1 acre, and preferably larger. "In Florida, the size of our sites is getting larger because of storm water and retention requirements," Capitano said. "One acre is the bare minimum. We just finished a new site, which is a little larger than 1 acre and includes a 4,000-square-foot store, 10 pumps and a car wash."

Many retailers, especially those opening multiple sites, use consultants to analyze potential locations. "There is no way that one person can have all the answers for such a complex business decision," Morris said. "Just one issue, such as utilities, can be a deal breaker. A retailer may have a wonderful site, but find out too late that it will take a half-million dollars to bring utilities to the site. Based on our experience, we can help c-store operators avoid some costly mistakes. Consultants can be more objective about sites, Fisher added. "We human beings tend to fall in love with land, but the trade area should always determine a site's viability."

Outside companies offer c-stores the ability to focus on the store and marketing, Dzwonczyk noted. "To successfully develop a site, recognize your own strengths and expertise," he said.

Some retailers use information from outside companies but still do their own site selection. "Consultants usually give a static look at a market, numbers and projections as of today," said NOCO's Newman. "But growth may be coming in the future and consultants don't always know this. We go to communities and ask about growth, subdivisions, parks, etc., and try to look two to five years into the future. We work hard to maintain a good relationship with town boards -- let them know who we are, and that we're a family company."

NOCO Energy does financial modeling of sites by plugging in projected sales, growth and traffic counts. "It may be less scientific than we would like at times, but our people here make good assumptions on sites. We go back, after opening, to check our assumptions," Newman said.

Fisher summed up the site-selection process: "The concept never changes, but the marketplace always does."