NEWARK, N.J. — The whole world is coping with uncertainty and change as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The U.S. convenience store industry is not exempt, forcing retailers to adapt rapidly to the new reality.
Among the steps retailers have taken to date are: intensifying their cleaning routines; enforcing social distancing through the use of drive-thrus, contactless payment and curbside pickup; and rewarding and protecting frontline employees to the best of their ability.
To help c-stores face this ongoing crisis, Convenience Store News brought together several industry leaders for an April 3 webinar entitled "Coping with COVID-19: The Convenience Store Industry in Action." Panelists included leaders from RaceTrac Petroleum, Yesway and StrasGlobal.
"We feel privileged to be able to serve our community during this time of uncertainty," said Natalie Morhous, president of Atlanta-based RaceTrac Petroleum, which operates more than 700 c-stores across the South.
At RaceTrac, upper leadership is staying in much closer contact with store teams than during typical operations. Specific actions the retailer has taken include:
Increasing employee pay in the form of a higher hourly rate, or bonuses for salaried employees;
Rolling out a COVID-19 specific leave policy that goes above and beyond existing sick leave or other paid time off;
Offering telemedicine to all employees, whether or not they participate in RaceTrac's health care plan;
Enhanced cleaning inside the stores;
Closing stores nightly for sanitation;
Temporarily discontinuing certain offers, such as grab-and-go pizza bars and the use of personal cups for refills; and
Offering the use of Night Pay Boxes as pass-through windows to allow customers to make purchases without entering the store.
Overall, RaceTrac has received positive feedback on its actions and is seeing high morale among employees, according to Morhous. Customers are also thankful that RaceTrac stores are still open, as they want to live their lives as normally as possible.
"Our goal is to be able to support them in that process," she said.
One positive aspect of the crisis, Morhous noted, is that frontline employees are getting the level of appreciation they deserve — possibly for the first time.
The most important thing c-stores can do right now is take care of their people, which includes employees, customers, and the people in their communities, advised Tom Trkla, CEO of Des Moines, Iowa-based Yesway and the recently acquired Clovis, N.M.-based Allsup's. Trying to remove the fear of unemployment among employees who need their jobs and are worried about losing them is also important, he said.
"You go home, you get paid, don't worry about it," Trkla said of the company's policy for employees should they show symptoms of illness.
His advice for fellow c-store operators is to "have a visual presence" when it comes to cleaning. At Yesway and Allsup's stores, the "constant cleaning throughout the entire day" is not just important for safety reasons, but also because doing it in clear view of customers helps them trust that the stores are taking the pandemic seriously.
The company has given a month of free fuel to its district managers who need to travel, and up to $250 in non-taxable store credit to all employees to help them get food and other supplies for their families. This is particularly helpful given the rural location of many of its stores, according to Trkla.
On the corporate level, all offices are now working remotely. The small minority of employees who must go into the office have staggered shifts.
The bottom line is that people come first, said Trkla.
One of the greatest challenges of COVID-19 is that it is not an external, physical hazard such as a hurricane or a power outage that a business might have already planned for, explained Roy Strasburger, president of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry.
"We found out we weren't ready, just like everyone else," he said.
In early March, StrasGlobal gathered as a group to put together contingency plans, which largely consist of three points:
Employee and customer safety;
How to help with outreach toward communities.
As the pandemic continues, retailers need actionable plans they can follow or get ideas from, rather than one-off solutions, Strasburger said. To that end, StrasGlobal created a COVID-19 Response Plan and has made it available as a free downloadable PDF on the company's website.
Ultimately, the c-store industry will get through this crisis by sharing information and best practices and helping one another, according to the webinar speakers. Instead of competing with one another, retailers are competing with the virus, they said.
An on-demand replay of the webinar, "Coping with COVID-19: The Convenience Store Industry in Action," is available by clicking here.