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Zooming Along

If you are reading this article and you have fewer than 20 stores, you are having an out-of-body experience. Why? Because you are dead.

According to the experts — and they seem to be every where I turn these days — no under-20-unit operator in our industry should be able to survive. That's right — if you haven't hit the big time by now, then you should sell out, close up, roll over and die. You are finished. You are inefficient and unable to handle the big-time competition. If 7-Eleven Inc. and the Big Oils haven't already done you in, then the supermarkets and hypermarkets of tomorrow surely will.

That kind of talk should depress the heck out of me. I opened my first store 18 years ago. I had always wanted to own my own business. So after undergraduate and graduate business school and some jobs that let me learn the business on someone else's nickel, I did it. I jumped into the wonderful world of being my own man — that is, after the banks, the customers and employees got through with me, which meant I usually saw my new baby girl, who was born the day I opened my business, only at breakfast and on Sunday.

When I started out in the convenience store industry, I was either too naive or too stupid to pay attention to a lot of the things that were going on at the time. Remember those days? 7-Eleven was king. They were going to build a new store on every corner and with their single-pick warehousing system and huge buying power, they were going to run all of us mom-and-pops right out of business. Then came the majors. They built huge gasoline and grocery facilities on every corner. It seemed at times they were selling fuel for less than many of us were paying for it at the rack.

What was the response of the mom-and-pop stores? As for me, I just worked even harder. Having served in a really large service business, I figured the one thing I could do was to add the personal touch — with my employees, my customers and my products.

I've learned there are some fundamental things customers look for in a convenience store. In addition to great customer service and the right price for gasoline, a critical factor is great location combined with great curb appeal. In addition to being located on the far corner at a traffic light, on the "going home" side of the road, you must have great landscaping and store design. The evidence shows that the quality of the box, not the appeal of the name brand, is the most critical part of a customer's decision to stop at a store.

And the competition? It is from competition, especially large chains and major oil companies that we learned about good customer service, card readers, multiple pump dispensers and a lot of other innovations. If it weren't for good competition we would still be selling ice, milk and bread in small stores in the middle of the block with Elvis rugs on the wall and incense on the front counter.

Besides, even chains with store counts in the thousands aren't so different from small operators. Just like us, at the end of the day they are trying to figure how to adjust their concepts to the ever-changing needs of their customer base, while at the same time tend to the more basic problems of hiring and firing. Both kinds of operators must control retail operations where employees handle more money in a single shift than they will see in months of payroll checks.

No matter how big you are, to your customer you are no better than that dirty restroom or that despicable cup of coffee, or the service from that employee who looks like he just graduated from Marilyn Manson charm school.

So where does this leave me? I am gonna keep on kicking. Zooms and I still have a few good years left And after that, there are lots of young folks who could probably do a better job if I would just get out of their way. But in the meantime, passion and a strong will to survive in today's business climate will take operators like me a long way.
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