Keeping It Fresh

In the dog-eat-dog world of convenience retailing, operators have long seen the need for keeping things fresh. As competition intensifies from within and outside the channel, more and more convenience store companies are picking things up a notch, creating new and innovative concepts to keep their customers coming back and attracting new business.

Looking at this year's list of Top 100 convenience store companies, we see that trend of innovative marketing over and over. (For the full Top 100 report, turn to Page 25.) Many of the largest chains are undertaking large-scale projects to enhance their brands and positions in the marketplace, as well as creating memorable and unique shopping experiences. One of the biggest stories of the past year was the launch of Sheetz Inc.'s new "convenience restaurant," which has yielded impressive results — as well as challenges — for the company. Among other companies ramping up their chains are:

• White Hen Pantry Inc., which recently opened its newly remodeled store in Chicago, steps from the Magnificent Mile (pictured at left). The new store's design, dubbed White Hen's "Store of the Future," will be the model for all subsequent White Hen locations.

New design and function elements include a fountain drink station with 16 different fountain drinks and four flavor shots, to allow customers to mix and match their drinks as they wish. Also included is a new barista station for espresso, café latte and cappuccino drinks and an aisle of organic and natural foods.

"We are excited to see some of the loyal White Hen customers back and new customers visiting our store on a daily basis. We can tell they missed the convenience of having their White Hen," said Brandon Barnholt, CEO of the 279-store chain.

• Quebec's Alimentation Couche-Tard, which is continuing to rebrand its network of 2,772 stores in the United States to the well-known Circle K brand, leveraging the identity and longevity of that name in markets where it has been firmly established, as well as introducing it to new markets such as Pennsylvania. According to Michel Bernard, vice president of operations for Couche-Tard's Midwest division, the company recently "determined that Circle K will be our national brand everywhere in the country." For example, Bernard said the company will revamp its Pittsburgh-area Dairy Mart stores to emphasize a greater selection of food offerings.

• Delek US Holdings Inc., operators of 339 MAPCO Express and East Coast stores, is rolling out its new prototype in Nashville in November. "You can build a new, bright convenience store but there might not necessarily be anything new to the delivery," said CFO Ed Morgan. "Our new stores will have a different feel. Yes, we're still very much in the convenience store business, but we will add a degree of separation from our competitors." Morgan did not want to spoil the effect of the surprise, and would not elaborate on how Delek US will create the new feeling in the stores but added, "Our new developments will encourage customers to think of our stores as a destination."

And that, of course, is what it's all about, no matter what the size of the business. From single stores to small chains to industry giants, the success of the operation rests on creating a powerful brand and keeping it fresh.
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