Top C-store Chains Focus on Enhancing the Employee Experience

As pandemic-driven labor shortages ease, convenience retailers are able to be more selective and hire the right employees.
Employees at a Family Express convenience store

NATIONAL REPORT — Savvy convenience store retailers know a good customer experience starts with good frontline employees. So, they make it a priority to keep team members satisfied, whether it's through a flexible schedule, competitive pay or career advancement opportunities.

Knowing what potential employees desire and then providing that — or even exceeding expectations — not only attracts them to a company, but also keeps them there. 

Advertisement - article continues below

"We believe the best way to have happy customers is to first have happy and engaged team members," said Jill Van Pelt, vice president of human resources at RaceTrac Inc., the Atlanta-based operator of nearly 800 c-stores. The company has found that employee satisfaction and engagement come down to a combination of competitive pay, great benefits, flexible schedules and "a fun-loving and team-oriented culture," as well as opportunities for growth.

[Read more: C-store Retailers Turn to Technology & Incentives to Conquer Labor Challenges]

This year, the labor shortages and high turnover that the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in are starting to turn around. Instead of hunting for job applicants, c-store operators are able to be more selective and hire the right employees. Technology helps with this process.

"Technology helps retailers screen people to determine if they are qualified and to understand their personality and aptitude to be successful within the company," said A.J. Richichi, CEO of Sprockets, a Charleston, S.C.-based software company that helps retailers find, hire and retain quality workers. "In c-stores, we only convert about 3% of the people who apply for a job, so out of 100 people, you will hire three of them."

This is the case at Family Express Corp., which will screen 50 applicants to hire just one, according to Alex Olympidis, president of operations for the Valparaiso, Ind.-based operator of 81 convenience stores. While the idea is to move as quickly as possible to respond to someone applying, because most people apply for jobs in mass and the competition may act faster, there must still be a screening process in place to ensure the right employee gets hired, he said.

"Our average time from application to hire is lengthy. Our strategy is to spend as much time as it takes to make the right hire," Olympidis explained. "Great candidates often need to give notice to their current employer, and we are willing to wait for them."

The Hiring Process

The process to apply for a position and get hired at a c-store is just as important to the potential employee as it is to the employer. Creating a positive experience will help attract quality employees and just as frictionless is emphasized in the store, it should apply to the recruitment process as well.

"We strive for [our team members] to have frictionless experiences from the moment they apply to the day-to-day operations of onboarding, getting paid, working the cash register, training and servicing the pumps, among other tasks," said Van Pelt.

Employees at RaceTrac

RaceTrac created a well-defined framework for its hiring teams to understand the "candidate profiles" for each role in the company and what success looks like within those roles. In doing so, the hiring teams can seek out and find the right employees through "insightful interviews" and "engaging discussions with prospective talent," she explained, noting that this approach is beneficial to both RaceTrac and the potential employees.

"Both RaceTrac and our potential team members can assess whether the job partnership aligns with their respective goals and aspirations," she said. "In the end, we want our candidates saying, 'I hope I get this job!' and if it's not the right fit, then we figure that out in the interview process."

RaceTrac offers a text-to-apply feature to make it easy and user-friendly for individuals to apply online. The company also hosts in-person job fairs to connect with potential candidates, which allows for a more personal experience.

"By offering these diverse application avenues, we aim to ensure every applicant has a positive, frictionless experience, encouraging a strong first impression of RaceTrac," Van Pelt said, pointing out that the team communicates with applicants throughout the entire process to keep them in the loop. "We'll proactively share updates and expectations throughout the hiring process, from screening to job offers, ensuring candidates have a clear understanding of where they stand and what to expect next."

Additionally, RaceTrac has a "Realistic Job Preview," a program that allows applicants to fully understand what their day-to-day responsibilities as an employee would look like. It's "a live view of what a real day would be like working at a RaceTrac store location," Van Pelt explained.

Part of creating a good hiring experience is acting quickly when potential hires apply, as many are applying to a large number of jobs without emotional attachment to any one company, especially for entry-level positions. Generation Z and millennial applicants are especially looking for a fast response time, according to Richichi. In the surveys Sprockets has conducted among millions of job applicants, the No. 1 thing they look for when selecting a workplace, above pay, is a fast response time.

Often, identifying the right candidates for a company starts with a pre-screening process. At Family Express, Olympidis said the goal is to find "happy individuals who also share our values." For decades, the retailer has used industrial psychology in its pre-screening test to ensure it identifies the people who are most likely to have a "sense of joy in serving others."

It's also important to highlight benefits, pay and other perks offered by the company during the hiring process. The two most desired benefits for hourly employees are flexibility in pay and schedule, according to the "State of the Hourly Workforce" report from Legion Technologies Inc., a workforce management company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

"By offering these benefits, c-stores can provide their hourly employees with greater control over their work schedules and allow them to access their pay more promptly, helping differentiate from other employers and ultimately leading to higher job satisfaction and reduced turnover," said Tiffany Chelsvig, senior vice president of people operations at Legion.

The Retention Process

Of course, it's not enough to hire the right employee. When a c-store operator finds a great fit, they want to keep that employee happy and satisfied, so they stay and grow with the company. Pay, benefits, bonuses, career advancement and more can serve as tools to retain employees and avoid a high turnover rate, which ultimately costs a company more time and money.

"Offering good pay, options to move up within the corporate ladder and even daily pay are perks to keep employees happy," said Richichi. "Now, there are no-interest daily pay apps for employees to access their salary on the same day they work, rather than waiting two weeks. A lot of c-stores are doing that, with some even offering college credits or other perks like access to Spotify or $250 gift cards if you make it 90 days."

At the top of the list for most employees, especially hourly workers, is having a flexible schedule and options for how they receive their pay, according to Chelsvig. Offering faster access to earned wages can provide team members with more financial stability and allow them to better manage their everyday expenses, the Legion executive said.

At RaceTrac, making scheduling easier for employees is a top priority right now, as the company is looking into new scheduling technology and how shifts are currently scheduled "to evaluate if there are opportunities to give our team even more flexibility," said Van Pelt.

Another important aspect for retention is the culture of a company and the way employees are treated and valued — they want to find joy in the work they do. Creating an environment that nurtures this can keep employees satisfied and with the company longer.

Career advancement is also an essential component of retention as many employees want to grow within a company and increase their salary and responsibilities. Highlighting this upfront and following up on it should be top-of-mind for c-store operators.

At Family Express, more than 50% of the chain's corporate office staff started their career at the company in a sales associate role in its stores, Olympidis shared.

"Development is both a passion and a necessity," he said.

RaceTrac has defined training programs to not only help employees in their current roles, but also prepare them for future roles, according to Van Pelt. The content is designed to build both "confidence and competence" by reinforcing concepts through actual practice. More than 70% of RaceTrac's store leaders have been promoted from in-store positions, and upwards of 95% of its regional support teams in operations and human resources began in a store role.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds