ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Two family-run convenience retail businesses — one a single-store operator, the other a chain — have social media success commonalities that they learned through trial and error.
Anthony Perrine, president of single-store Lou Perrine’s Gas and Groceries, which has been in business for 60-plus years in Kenosha, Wis., and Ariel Rubin, director of communications for Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go LC, with 400 stores in 11 states, shared their different-in-details, but similar-in-theory social media stories during the recent NACS Crack the Code Experience.
Perrine said it took him about three years to get well-known in Kenosha on social media, trying out all the different platforms (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.) and many different scenarios.
What first stuck with his audience was when he transformed himself into a social media “persona,” simply by donning sunglasses and one of his store’s hats backwards, and boasting out his name, “It’s your boy, Anthony Perrine…” and doing a “schtick like the ShamWow guy,” he relayed.
Then, two years ago, fate intervened. A thief, determined by Perrine not to be an employee or customer of the store, robbed the hotel next door to Lou Perrine’s and was caught on camera wearing one of the store’s hoodies, where it was written on the back: I (Heart) HO HO CAKE.
Local news anchors started making a joke on the air, “What’s a Ho Ho Cake?” So, Perrine took to Twitter to explain. Mama P’s Ho Ho Cake was created by Perrine mother for his eighth birthday; it’s a chocolate cake with a white cream middle layer, topped with fudge frosting. It’s become an icon of the store.
Working with local authorities, Perrine offered a “sweet reward” for whoever could turn the bandit in — free Ho Ho Cake for a year. The story went viral, “and the rest is history,” he recalled. “That’s how we came to social media fame in southeast Wisconsin.”
The way Perrine sees it, social media is just telling a story and, unlike other forms of media, you get to interact with your customer while doing it. “It’s not about being super creative, it’s about reusing what’s out there,” he said. “Everything we do has to fit what we’re doing and what we’re about. It’s also about being culturally relevant and edgy, being fun and informative. It’s a constant bombardment on social media to stay on top of their mind. We try to create ourselves as a unique destination of a place.”
Case in point: For the store’s 64th birthday, Perrine dreamed up an idea with his friend who owns a tattoo shop. For the first 50 people who got a tattoo of a Ho Ho Cake or the store’s logo, Perrine’s would pay for the tattoo and give the tattooed customer a free Ho Ho Cake every time they came into the store.
“I thought it would be a bust. I thought people would say I’m silly,” said Perrine.
But on 5 a.m. the Monday of the promotion, he received a call from his tattoo-parlor friend who told him, “You’ve got to get here, cars are lined up everywhere.”
Because 150 people showed up, Perrine extended the promotion to the first 100 people.
“I’m a big brand guy and I consider this a success because you don’t see a lot of people with Sam’s Club logos tattooed on them or Kwik Trip,” he said.
Learning From Your Mistakes
Perrine admits that he sometimes has a tendency to “go a little bit too far,” but says he has learned great lessons from his mistakes.
For instance, at Christmastime, he came up with the “25 Days of Christmas” promotion featuring Little Lou, the naughty elf. “I had a genius idea for World Orgasm Day, December 22. I decided to get elfy to promote condoms and promote the day,” Perrine said. “It went well everywhere but Facebook; a group of Catholics were offended and came after me. It became a war on social media.”
He immediately reacted by responding publicly to the complaints even though he left the image up. He reached out personally to the woman who spearheaded the protest, inviting her to meet with him on Christmas Eve, which she did.
“I gave her the time of day. I told her I was sorry and didn’t mean to be offensive, and that I wasn’t going to take the post down, but I’d listen to her and would take down the posts from people who criticized her,” said Perrine. “And of course, I gave her Ho Ho Cake. Now, she comes in all the time as a customer.”
Moving forward, Perrine said he’s vowed to “run everything through my wife and manager first.”
He also came to realize that ideas like World Orgasm Day play well on Instagram and Twitter because of their younger-generation audience. “Facebook is an older generation who didn’t appreciate it,” he said.
Where the Conversation Is Happening
At Kum & Go, social media is now “where the conversation is happening,” according to Rubin.
“It’s a fascinating space to really engage with customers,” he said. “You can put anything on there and find out immediately what’s working and what’s not.”
Until recently, Kum & Go didn’t have a real voice on social media; the retailer merely used the platforms for marketing and advertising. But in 2019, Rubin said they went in a different direction, using A/B testing and then in 2020, they “ran with it,” partly in the form of merchandise giveaways.
“I can’t express enough how merch takes the online experience offline and lets people own a piece of what you do,” he said, noting that these giveaways are in the form of low-cost backpacks, fanny packs, sunglasses and visors. “You get people to advertise your business for free.”
The company also decided to use social media as a way to “stand up” in a difficult year. “Culture is happening every day and we want to put Kum & Go at the center of cultural moments,” said Rubin. “It’s the job of a good social media professional or team to insert your brand into that conversation.”
The numbers don’t lie — Kum & Go went from 19,000 followers on Twitter a year ago to more than 42,000 today, and from zero followers on TikTok to 66,000 followers currently.
Rubin offered up 10 tips for fellow retailers looking to truly expand their social media conversation:
Use influencers to build long-term partnerships. Influencer collaboration can work if it is a well-matched influencer to your brand. You also must consider the platform being used.
Consider celebrity engagement, especially celebrities near your brand. “We send our swag to famous people strategically — those who we like and who like us. We send T-shirts; they tweet about it or use our name in a podcast. They are a friend of the brand. It’s all free and it builds goodwill.”
Make the merch work. Kum & Go’s philosophy is “make cool merch, win cool customers.” Giveaways inspire social media conversations and build loyalty. Kum & Go recently gave away a needlepoint with the inscription: “Tis better to have kum and gone than never to kum and go at all.”
Test new and emerging platforms like TikTok. To capture and connect with 16- to 22 year-olds, Kum & Go hired a 19-year-old Gen Z specialist to manage platforms like TikTok.
Tweet to the next level. Kum & Go uses humor and storytelling on Twitter to win over both new associates and new customers.
Go offline. It’s not all about online conversations. Kum & Go brings the same “digital hype and energy” to its store openings, with 100 fanny packs typically given out by 7 a.m. Kids camp out for the openings.
Stand for something. “We use our social platform and privilege to amplify marginalized voices, be loud allies, and support causes that matter to us,” said Rubin. “When we have something important to say, we find a fun way to say it. People really engage with this stuff.” Recently, Kum & Go posted: “we don’t mind if you want to laugh at our name. we get it. kum. but one thing we won’t tolerate on our platform is rape apologist language. any slut-shaming, sexism, or misogyny in the comments is going to get you blocked. love, kum & go.”
Engage in a deeper way. Kum & Go believes that if you help people get through something important to them, they will become a fan for life. And so, the retailer believes in deepening its relationship with its audience. According to Rubin, “not only are we communicating with our audience, we are also listening, incorporating their ideas into fun campaigns and giveaways.”
Promote chainwide and local happenings. Kum & Go utilizes social media to promote its business as it evolves offerings and operations, such as curbside delivery or gas-pumping service.
Make mistakes. This is the only way you’re going to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Try things. They won’t always work, but this is how you find your voice and ultimately build your audience. “You have to be willing to screw up. Trust your social media people. Let them make mistakes. The failures are just as informative as the wins — maybe even more so.”
The NACS Crack the Code Experience was a five-week digital event that brought together convenience store industry retailers and suppliers virtually in lieu of an in-person NACS Show this year. It ran from early November to early December.