NATIONAL REPORT — Building community connections can be advantageous for the convenience channel’s small operators in competing against the industry’s larger chains.
It isn’t about small operators giving the house away, but rather about getting their faces out in public, according to Anthony Perrine, president of single-store Lou Perrine’s Gas and Groceries, which has been in business for more than 60 years in Kenosha, Wis.
“Being an active community member when you’re a small business is almost like being a politician: you attend an event where you hand out food or other supplies from your store and it opens that door for people to put a face to a name,” he told Convenience Store News. “There is a chance there are people who will or will not know you, but eventually the more active you are, your convenience store begins building brand equity and creates a personality and culture around your brand that big businesses can’t do. This is where small operators and [small] businesses really win over customers.”
A key advantage for small operators (those operating 20 stores or less) is that they are both physically and psychologically in closer proximity to their customers, whereas executives or those in a position of power who can institute changes at larger chains are a few steps removed from the local community’s wants and needs.
“Small operators can take advantage of a resource they already have and is not something you need a consultant for or special software for. Most small operators already have everything they need to be a good community partner,” said Roy Strasburger, CEO of StrasGlobal, a contract operations provider that services retail locations for companies, which for various reasons, don't have the expertise, infrastructure or desire to operate them.
Another key advantage for small operators, Strasburger cited, is that the owner of the site(s) is directly involved in the day-to-day operations, so they can decide quickly, get immediate feedback, and make changes if necessary. “This compares to larger chains where the information has to work its way up before being implemented,” he noted.
Being an active community member can create multiple opportunities for small operators. Among them is acquiring brand equity through emotional connections, becoming a reliable resource for the community, and retaining and gaining new employees.
Some of the best strategies to reap these benefits are:
1. Create an Emotional Connection
Although most consumers are aware of big chains because of their continual advertising, more often than not it is difficult for customers to create an emotional connection to big businesses. Small operators can capitalize on this by creating an emotional connection through community involvement that positions the retailer as “one of them,” advises John Matthews, president and CEO of retail consulting firm Gray Cat Enterprises Inc.
“Once the customer connects with the operator as someone that ‘has their back,’ then it will be very difficult for the big chains to break that bond,” he explained.
2. Form Strategic Partnerships
While larger chains and businesses base their corporate social responsibility efforts on donating money, smaller operators’ success comes from being strategic in the partnerships they choose to be a part of, according to Perrine.
For example, Lou Perrine’s recently held a program where a customer could buy a backpack and the store would donate a backpack to the local Boys and Girls Club of America, which focuses predominantly on lower-income children. Perrine and his team hand-delivered the backpacks and spent time with the kids, creating that personal connection with everyone involved.
“Our No. 1 priority and our No. 1 brand recognition is community involvement, so it’s important to let everyone know that we’re here and we’re for the community,” Perrine said. “When it comes to small businesses, we have a leg up to connect with the community by not giving the house away, but by getting our face out there and becoming a business that the local community can rely on.”
3. Communicate Your Efforts
Small operators need to communicate their efforts in order to get a halo effect of positively serving their community. In doing so, retailers will build customer loyalty vicariously through people who are associated with the projects they support, Strasburger explains.
“For example, if you support a local little league baseball team, you’re not only helping the team get supplies that it needs, but you’re also getting your name out in front of the parents, grandparents and others who watch those children play,” he said. “It creates customer loyalty so that they will choose your store over another because of what you’re doing.
“The more active you are, they more activity your store receives,” he emphasized.