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A Great First Impression


Retailer Innovator of the Year Wawa recreates and enhances its brand in a new market

To say that Floridian consumers were desperately in need of a Wawa fix might be an overstatement. But then again, maybe not, according to posts on the Pennsylvania-based chain’s heavily trafficked Facebook page.

“Desperately waiting for Sarasota FL Wawa’s! Since moving from NJ having serious withdrawal!!!” wrote one Florida convenience store customer.

“Can’t wait until the one opens on 301 and MLK and the one on Hillsborough across from the Hard Rock — that will be TWO Wawas within a mile of me — doin’ the happy Wawa dance,” another giddy Floridian recently posted on Wawa’s Facebook page, which has accumulated more than 1 million “likes.” The only convenience store retailer with more Facebook likes is 7-Eleven. The international retailer has more than 3 million likes, but 10 times as many stores as Wawa.

Wawa opened its first Florida store — and first store outside its traditional Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware-Maryland-Virginia market area — on July 18, 2012, in Orlando. The chain opened its 25th Sunshine State store just last month, also in the central Florida area, and now operates more than 630 convenience stores.

The fact that Wawa’s leap of almost 1,000 miles south of its traditional markets has met or exceeded all expectations is “frankly humbling,” Wawa President and CEO Chris Gheysens said in an exclusive interview with Convenience Store News.

“From the beginning, one of our mantras was that we had only one chance to make a great first impression,” said Gheysens, who noted that the expansion has not been without its “learning experiences” for the company.

To make this great first impression, Wawa needed to do more than just transplant its Mid-Atlantic store model to the South. “We felt we needed a fresh design, driven by the psychology of the Florida customer. The new store design has really informed the majority of people who didn’t previously know Wawa and what the brand stands for: fresh, great-quality food and beverages, and convenience.”

Always one of the leading innovators in the c-store industry, Wawa in the past year seems to be taking convenience retailing to a new level. With its successful entry into Florida, innovative use of social media, a mobile app initiative and continued focus on the consumer, Wawa has been selected by the editors of CSNews as the 2013 Retailer Innovator of the Year.

To introduce itself to customers in central Florida, Wawa worked with store design firm CBX to unveil the retailer’s first major new store concept since the late 1990s. The new design uses “fresh” decorating cues such as natural materials, floor to ceiling glass windows, warm colors, an outdoor seating area and a redesigned, highly visible kitchen/sandwich-making area.

“When you walk into the store, you see people making food, as well as digital signs romancing the offer,” said Gheysens. “There’s no mistaking that we are in the fresh food and fresh beverage business.” (Editor’s note: Wawa’s new store concept won an Honorable Mention award in September in the 2013 CSNews Store Design Contest.)

Another new innovation at its Florida stores is the institution of “ambassadors” at the front door to introduce people to the Wawa experience as they walk in. These associates are armed with an iPad-type, touchscreen ordering device. “They have been very successful at walking customers through our offer, our culture and helping show them how to shop at a Wawa. They help to demystify the Wawa experience,” the chief executive explained.

As mentioned earlier, Wawa’s expansion into Florida didn’t happen without resulting in “learning experiences” for the c-store retailer. But it’s a testament to the company’s innovative thinking that it has turned potential pitfalls into opportunities.

“We’ve learned quite a bit,” Gheysens noted. “We hold ourselves to high standards for customer service and we found we did not build the associate side of the store sufficiently to handle the high volume of business we did right out of the gate in Florida.”

The retailer found itself scrambling from the grand opening on July 18, 2012. To get customers in and out of the store within five minutes, Wawa quickly put in a speaker system for announcing to customers by order number when their food was ready for pickup at the counter.

The chain also needed to redesign the kitchen layout to make room for more sandwich-making equipment in order to handle orders more quickly. Subsequent Florida stores were built with more kitchen space to handle the high-velocity sandwich operation. Unexpectedly high initial sales also spurred the company to expand in other areas, such as its specialty espresso drinks and new milkshakes. Backroom storage space was also expanded at some stores.

The brand ambassador idea spurred more creative thinking as the retailer introduced expediters to work alongside the customer lines and take orders before they get to the counter.

Even the outdoor seating concept has proven to be a happy “learning experience” for the retailer. Originally installed in the Florida stores to reinforce the food and beverage message, the seating areas are becoming very popular and heavily used by customers. So now, “we are asking ourselves, how can we make it more functional?” Gheysens told CSNews.

After opening 25 stores in its first 13 months in Florida, Wawa expects to have 30 to 45 stores in the central Florida region by the end of this year. The company is currently pursuing more sites for ground-up units and its goal is to open between 20 and 25 stores per year in the area.


“People love to engage with our brand,” Gheysens said.

The company sees the benefits of using social media from both a community and brand perspective. Wawa’s 1 million-plus likes puts it among the top 1 percent of pages on Facebook. It also has more than 23,000 Twitter “followers.”

The secret to its success? “We try to let our authentic voice come through and you can see that customers really love to have a personal engagement with us,” the CEO said.

Wawa’s call center monitors all its social media sites on a 24/7 basis and attempts to respond to all customer feedback in a voice consistent with the company’s brand message.

Unlike many other c-store retailers who struggle with measuring their return on investment from social and digital media, Wawa feels it has a good handle on its social media investments. “We measure all our advertising media and we feel the return we get on social media is one of the highest of any media we utilize,” said Gheysens.

In the future, he said Wawa will be more focused on doing product promotions online and through social media, but the ultimate aim of its social and digital media initiatives is to help the retailer “simplify our customers’ daily life.”

Toward that end, Wawa is currently in the process of developing its first mobile app, which is expected to debut next year. “We’re taking our time with this,” cautioned Gheysens. “We want to integrate our app completely with the experience at the store level.”

Without getting into specifics, he ticked off some of the possible app components that would fulfill its mission:

  • Provide the ability to order and pay via the customer’s mobile device. This could even be triggered automatically within a geographic perimeter of the store to which the customer is headed, or by a touch of the thumb.
  • Provide nutritional information for food offerings.
  • Find the lowest gas prices within a geographic range of the customer’s mobile device.

“We know that 70 percent of our customers have a smartphone,” noted Gheysens. “And we know that a significant number of people at 4 p.m. don’t know what they are having for dinner that evening. What has done to online retailing [in terms of speed of delivery and customizing offerings to customers] is going to happen to brick-and-mortar retailing. Mobile offers us the opportunity to do tailored marketing to customer-specific needs and to target offers to them that resonate better than anyone else’s.”

Gheysens described Wawa as more of a “fast follower” than a leader in innovation. Nevertheless, the c-store retailer’s decentralized innovation process has made it “very successful.”

Most of the focus of the past few years has been on product innovation, according to Gheysens. “But now, we are thinking more about the process of innovation with the aim of getting ideas through the pipeline faster,” he said. So, in addition to the product innovation being explored in the food area, the company is also looking at innovation in customer technology.

Gheysens expects product innovation will always be important, but customer technology and innovations in customer experience will be new areas that will extend and enhance the Wawa brand going forward.

The leap into Florida was certainly the high point of the past year for Wawa. Gheysens believes Wawa has not only made a great first impression, but it is continuing to build brand awareness and satisfaction with customers for the long term.

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