U.K. C-stores Weigh in on American Convenience

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U.K. C-stores Weigh in on American Convenience

WASHINGTON -- As a reward for being named the Londis Store of the Year -- an honor bestowed on one of the more than 300 Londis convenience stores in the United Kingdom -- Devon, Ireland retailers, Steve and Karen Woodman, recently toured a number of U.S. convenience stores through U.K.'s Association of Convenience Stores' annual study tour, U.K.-based Convenience Store magazine reported.

The tour stopped at several retailers located in Virginia and Georgia, including Rutter's Sheetz and Wawa, according to the report.
Rutter's president and CEO, and past chairman of NACS, Scott Hartman, told the attendees what to expect from their American counterparts.

"We're all about fresh food -- and by that we mean food for now," he said. "Most of the hot food we sell is eaten within a few minutes of purchase. You'll also see the trend towards prepayment for everything, and more and more kiosk-based ordering and self-service."

When visiting a 3,500-square-foot Sheetz store in Haymarket, Va., Karen Woodman, who co-owns a 1,200-square-foot store, was amazed by its size.

"I can't believe the space they have," she said. "They've got a huge car park, the forecourt is vast and there doesn't seem to be any restriction inside. It's not like ours, where every square foot has to pay for itself."

The Sheetz store generates 5,000 transactions daily, according to the report, which noted that America's definition of convenience is "eat and drink now," the report stated. In the Sheetz store, a 30-foot coffee bar displays at least a dozen varieties of self-service coffee.

"They've got more space for sugar, lids and stirrers than we have for coffee," Karen told the magazine.

Across the aisle, a Fizz City fountain section offers 30 varieties of beverages and cups as large as 44 ounces. Two walls of packaged beverages are beyond the fountain area. The large number of energy drinks on sale, and the size of the packages indicate a trend that may jump the Atlantic to the U.K., the report stated.

The magazine noted cooler doors are stocked from behind, and Karen told the magazine, "I want one of those!"

However, as the guests toured the fresh food area and made-to-order foodservice section, they noticed a large difference between the U.S. and the U.K.'s offerings -- standard grocery items are limited to a small selection, and "there's no fresh fruit, save a few bananas and apples merchandised as healthy snacks. There are no fresh vegetables. In their place are rows of crisps, nuts, snacks and confectionery," the report stated.

"They told us that 60 percent of the food sold in here is eaten within four minutes," Karen told the magazine. "It wouldn't work for us -- we're the only shop in the area, and there are certain lines that we just have to stock."

At a visit to a QuikTrip in Atlanta, the store's customer service standards caught the attention of Steve Woodman. "One store we visited … has a reputation for excellent staff, and they deserve it," Steve Woodman told the magazine. "You get a big hello as you walk in, and all the staff are really chatty. You don't wait at the till -- they come to you. We were told they hire staff for their personalities, and you really notice the effect it has."

The Wawa store impressed the visitors, who noted the format could be adapted to the U.K., as it takes the best of American convenience and combines it with familiar features from stores overseas such as packaged fresh fruit and a healthy theme to prepared foods. Additional highlights such as high ceilings, clear signage, intelligent layout and soft music makes for "a very pleasant shopping environment," the report stated.

"There are some things that American stores do really well," Steve told the magazine. "But they are not always things I can see crossing over into our market. I haven't seen a single store that you could pick up and drop into the U.K., because we are just not bound to our cars in the way they are."

He added: "The chains seem to be very strict with stores -- they don't allow the retailer's personality to come through and there's no scope to bring in your own choice of lines to suit your customers."

Conversely, Convenience Store News Editor-in-Chief Don Longo recently toured several U.K. convenience retailers -- including Tesco Express, J. Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer. To read his thoughts on the retailers and view images from the stores, visit CSNews Online's Foodservice page at www.csnews.com/foodservice and click the "Brilliant Retailing" links under the Special Features section at the top of the page.