ATLANTA—One mistake convenience store operators make is thinking like a convenience store, according to Lonnie McQuirter, director of operations for 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis and a panelist at Thursday’s session “First to Market: Getting New Product on Your Shelves.”
“Sometimes, retailers have this negative attitude that’s kind of self-fulfilling in a way that they’re just a gas station that happens to sell chips and Coke,” McQuirter said. “If you want to create an experience your consumers are going to remember and make the effort to come back,” he said, “you must put more effort and thought into what new items you offer, where you place them in your store and how you display them.”
Don’t let limited store space restrict big thinking. C-store retailers can do a lot with a little when introducing new products. Let your creative juices flow. More importantly, think like a consumer, McQuirter said.
Although McQuirter admits many customers visit convenience stores looking for staples, retailers are missing a huge opportunity to differentiate their store and their brand from competitors. McQuirter considers Phil’s 550 in Marquette, Michigan, the gold standard in product merchandising and customer service.
“This little convenience store is located in a quintessential small town, but it’s iconic. The owners have created a big following for their business,” he said. “It’s surprising what you can do with such tiny square footage. For the amount of pride that the cashiers, the owners and everyone else have, you feel guilty for not being able to spend more money there.”
Jared Scheeler, CEO of The Hub Convenience Stores Inc., a set of four stores located in Western North Dakota, is among the session panelists, and he will offer sage advice for even the smallest retailers. According to Scheeler, some single-store, independent operators “struggle to find the right resources and information” about product merchandising.
Niche products differentiate
Both McQuirter and Scheeler agree that small, independent operators can set themselves apart by carrying specialized products, such as those sourced from local vendors or those that customers might not expect to see in a convenience store.
“We actually brought in a rack of sundresses to a truck-stop-style gas station, and we had to reorder them three times,” Scheeler said.
Other products that have sold surprisingly well in Scheeler’s stores include Angry Bird merchandise at the height of the craze about four years ago and high-demand solar eclipse glasses at the time of the 2017 event.
Don’t know where to start? Scheeler suggests forming strong relationships with distributors and manufacturers. These partnerships provide good feedback on what’s trending in your marketplace, what new products are on the horizon and what time- or event-based products might sell well at your store.
However, don’t forget the little guys, McQuirter said.
“A lot of times, convenience stores look toward the same brands and vendors they always use for new product recommendations,” he said. “Sometimes, they don’t realize that the major brands are simply replicating whatever is stealing market share from their brand.”
He suggests connecting with smaller, more localized vendors that can fulfill a particular category need but are doing it in a truly innovative way. For example, McQuirter’s customers flock to his store in search of locally made, hard-to-find hot sauces. And, because his store also stocks organic foods, one product that continues to fly off the shelf is the Louisville Vegan Jerky, despite its $8 price tag.
Merchandising is a must
It’s one thing to bring in niche products, but you have to merchandise it well. Otherwise, customers might never notice them.
“The way you display your products and merchandise in your store really can have a positive or negative effect on your customer,” McQuirter said.
That means posting signage, creating promos and being intentional in where you place items. Putting kombucha tea near the antacids and aspirin, for instance, most likely will turn customers off from purchasing that item.
And, don’t forget to equip your frontline employees with all of the information they need to help you move the new product in your stores. Scheeler integrates new product education into his extensive employee training program. For example, McQuirter invites employees to sample all of the products so they can form their own opinions about each item.
The bottom line
It takes time and effort to build an efficient sales strategy for new products. However, fostering brand loyalty among your customers is crucial for turning them into lifelong fans.
“It’s tough to measure how impactful this strategy is,” Scheeler said, “but I go on faith that because we’re doing things differently and being purposeful, we’re going to grow our business this way.”