Kaitlin Wolfe, vice president of merchandising at TravelCenters of America Inc.
WESTLAKE, Ohio — In 2020, TravelCenters of America Inc. (TA) embarked on a transformative journey. With last year being a year of preparation and planning, this year is a year of execution for the company.
As the transformation progresses, TA is striving to evaluate its business processes to find ways to better serve the needs of its guests. One of the key pillars is knowing who the guest is and making sure the guest — whether it's a professional driver or a motorist — is at the center of everything it does. As guests' shopping needs change, TA will adapt as well to serve their needs.
As part of this, the retailer is focusing on the guest journey at its stores, according to Kaitlin Wolfe, vice president of merchandising. This has led to a new reflow initiative.
"Through this transformation, and through the lens of the reflow, we have identified that not all of our stores are mapped in a way that provides them with the best possible shopping experience," Wolfe told Convenience Store News. "In some cases, when a professional driver enters the store, he or she may be met with souvenirs; and when our motorist enters the store, they may walk right into truck oil. When they enter the store, it doesn't always resonate with the purpose of their shopping needs.
"TA is making a large investment in its travel centers to enhance the guest experience through significant site-level upgrades," she continued. "Reflows are a very important part of that overall project and journey."
A Tale of Two Customers
As Wolfe explained, the professional driver and the motorist come to TA for different reasons and shop the store differently.
The professional driver may be visiting a location for 30 minutes to refuel and grab a hot meal, or they may be staying for a longer period of time where they not only refuel and grab a meal, but also use the amenities such as showers, laundry facilities, and parking. Motorists are coming in for fuel, but they are also coming in to grab snacks, maybe a meal, and some convenience items.
The professional driver enters the store through the diesel entrance. Close to that entrance, customers may find electronics that they may need and any adjacencies. The motorist enters through the gas entrance and will find items relevant to their trip, she explained.
"There is definitely some crossover between the two different guests. There are common areas that we know not only the professional driver shops, but also the motorist shops, and we want to make sure we have that in all of our sites," Wolfe said.
Taking the First Steps
TA began the reflow initiative at the beginning of this year, first by looking at some of the analytics and then prioritizing the sites with field input. The retailer completed 20 reflows through June, and has plans to complete almost 70 for the year.
The approach and the process to reflow a site is the same; however, the changes made to each site — and even each store on a property — may be different based upon individual demographics and traffic patterns, according to Wolfe.
"We have been spending a lot of time at TA trying to better understand our guests and the site segmentation. Through the reflow process, my team is completing space-to-sales and profit analysis that helps us make recommendations that will enable us to serve the guest — whether that site is more professional driver focused or it is more motorist focused, or it may be a split," she said.
A large part of the reflow process is also collaboration with TA's field partners. While Wolfe's team is completing the space-to-sales and profit analysis and using the different tools and infrastructure to make recommendations, the company is utilizing field input on how best to utilize the space to meet guest needs.
"They are in our stores every day; they know their guests better than we can at HQ," Wolfe said. "This is a very collaborative process that not only combines the merchandising and expertise and analytics, but also takes into account feedback that is extremely valuable from our field partners."
The goal is to eventually bring the reflow initiative to all TA sites. With nearly 70 on the agenda for this year, TA intends to continue reflowing sites in 2022 and 2023.
In addition to the reflows, the retailer is making a large investment in its travel centers to enhance the guest experience through significant site-level upgrades.
"The reflow process is an important part of that, and we will follow along with the same or similar schedule, so we don't disrupt the guest or team members more than once," Wolfe told CSNews. "We want to minimize that disruption to enable the best guest shopping experience."
Features of the site reflows include new branded wayfinding signs and depending on the investment level at the site, new fixtures and electronic shelf labels. Some of those new fixtures look drastically different than what TA has today — they are much more bright and inviting for the guest to shop, according to Wolfe.
"We want to make changes in our stores that are the most impactful — whether that is a category that is main driver of our business, or if it's an area we really want to differentiate not only TA but have it be a differentiated shopping experience for the guest," she said.
Still in the early stages, TA is closely watching and monitoring the initial read on the first several sites that have been reflowed.
"We are quickly taking those learnings that have worked for us and we are applying those to our fuel buildings," she explained. "By the end of July, we will have implemented those key learnings in approximately 59 fuel buildings. We have a schedule to reflow all stores on the site property, which may include new fixtures or maintenance opportunities."
Each store has a wide range of convenience items, from food and beverages to merchandise including apparel and electronics. A fuel building is a smaller format designed for quick access that is adjacent to the dedicated commercial fuel lanes. These fuel buildings help provide professional drivers efficiency in purchasing fuel, food items, beverages and necessities for their vehicle during their active work hours.
TA's transformation has been happening at the same time as COVID-19 has gripped the United States, and the health crisis has ushered in restrictions across all levels of government. While the majority of those restrictions have been lifted or eased, there are still obstacles to getting back to business as usual.
"This year with COVID has presented different challenges to all of us. We are experiencing different challenges and having to adapt, whether that is due to supply chain disruptions, raw material shortages, shipping delays — you name it. We are learning to adapt and make changes in order to meet the guest needs," Wolfe pointed out.
For example, TA has run into issues with the lead time around fixtures.
"Fixtures are a really important part of the reflows and reshaping the guest experience when they shop at TA. We want to move as quickly as possible and right now, we are juggling the different lead times, exploring different options — whether that is through our supplier partners or how we procure fixtures and get them to our sites as quickly as possible," she said.
"Our team has done an amazing job not just dealing with the day-to-day challenges, but thinking forward and thinking differently about how they are going to solve problems," Wolfe added.
Westlake-based TA has more than 270 locations in 44 states and Canada, principally under the TA, Petro Stopping Centers and TA Express brands. The company is committed to sustainability, with its specialized business unit, eTA, focused on sustainable energy options for professional drivers and motorists, while leveraging alternative energy to support its own operations. TA also operates more than 600 full-service and quick-service restaurants and nine proprietary brands, including Iron Skillet and Country Pride.