Convenience stores are constantly evolving to compete for consumer attention, said 2017-18 NACS Chairman Joe Sheetz during his keynote address at the NACS Show. Whether it’s value menus, new food and beverage offers at a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant, ecommerce or new technologies that enhance the customer experience, “We compete against everyone who sells convenience, and increasingly that seems like EVERYONE!” he said.
This higher level of competition today is what drives convenience stores to excel at delivering an experience like no other in food, fuel and retail. “Competition is always exciting,” said Sheetz, president and CEO of Altoona, Pennsylvania-based Sheetz Inc., which operates more than 575 stores in six U.S. states. “Sure, we compete against each other, but we’re just as likely to help make each other better,” he said.
The key to successfully competing in a crowded marketplace of food and retail formats is for retailers to focus on what they do best, essentially knowing why they exist. Sheetz, for example, focuses on three areas:
Fulfilling the immediate needs of convenience-demanding customers.
“We need to know who our customers are and what types of food, drinks and experiences motivate them,” Sheetz said. Whether it’s blue- and white-collar workers frequenting stores during the morning daypart, or parents and millennials visiting c-stores for snacks, fuel and beverages, Sheetz develops specific messages and offers for each of these customers.
Meeting the needs of today’s convenience customer, says Sheetz, ultimately requires a focus on the total customer experience.
“Because we all sell the same types of items, I believe that more than ever the customer experience
is what can differentiate us from every other channel,” he said, noting that technology can play a valuable role. For example, the recently revamped Sheetz mobile app will soon allow customers to pay for food and merchandise in advance online.
“All of this change has happened through the lens of fulfilling the convenience needs of our customers. And the key is to do it in a way where we make it easy for them to do business with us,” he said.
Making people’s lives easier.
As the lines among food and retail channels continue to blur, convenience retailers are perhaps best suited to refocus their sites to make life easier for today’s time-starved customers—beginning with how their stores are designed. “Running the same old stores isn’t going to cut it in the long run,” said Sheetz, explaining the company’s new store design strategy “that is as close to starting over as you can get.”
New store features like drive-thrus and a bench seating area for customers waiting for foodservice orders reflect how Sheetz wants to make life easier for its customers. “We’re still experimenting with this new design and it’s certainly far from perfect; however, early results are very promising.”
Being dedicated to Sheetz employees and the communities that Sheetz serves.
“We believe that we best serve our community when we are also serving our employees and their families,” said Sheetz.
The company offers a tuition reimbursement program and a new service that helps employees
complete their GED. In addition, Sheetz encourages its employees to give back to the community, whether through the company’s in-house charity, Sheetz For the Kidz, Special Olympics, or a charity of their choice.
Annually, Sheetz awards one employee with its “Spirit of Giving” award. Last year, the winner made a bet with his coworkers that if they exceeded their fundraising goal, he would dye his hair purple. “He proudly rocked a receding hairline as purple as can be!” said Sheetz.
Sheetz also supports the community through its new Made to Share program, developed in partnership with Feeding America. The companywide program is donating ready-to-eat food items such as sandwiches, wraps and salads as well as healthy snacking options such as fruit, vegetables and yogurt to Feeding America member food banks. In addition to weekly food donations, Sheetz will provide financial contributions to Feeding America member food banks at every new store opening.
“As an industry, we have a great story to tell about how we serve our communities as we serve our customers—everything from charitable giving to supporting local first responders as they work hard to take care of others,” said Sheetz. “Collectively we have done a better job of getting that message out, but great messaging is all about repetition. We need to keep telling that story about how the “C” in c-store stands for more than convenience: The “C” also stands for community and caring for the people in it.”
As a NACS retail member for nearly half a century, Sheetz as a company has been a leader in advancing NACS and the convenience store industry overall. Sheetz is the third chairman of NACS: His uncle Steve Sheetz and cousin Stan Sheetz, were also NACS chairmen, in 1991 and 2004, respectively. Throughout his own journey, Sheetz said that he’s experienced the convenience store industry’s evolution in both its perception among consumers and in sales.
“Our industry’s sales are about 3% of the total gross domestic product. Our customer count is 165 million people—we basically are interacting with and impacting the lives of half of America every day,” he said. And yes, everyone is competing for the convenience customer. “But let’s look at it another way: We are suddenly the cool kids that everyone wants to be.”