After working at Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores Inc. for more than 17 years in various roles, Victoria Sheppard knows a thing or two about the convenience-store industry. She currently managers tobacco and CBD for Oklahoma City-based Love’s 540-plus stores. And while Sheppard says tobacco is not a glamourous industry, she knows it connects the entire store and is a traffic driver. That’s why she is always keeping an eye on consumer insights and thinking of how she can improve the backbar. “If you know what else your customers purchase in their basket it can guide you to more lucrative in store promotions placed around items that they are purchasing at a higher volume already,” she says.

What do you love about your category?
How challenging and competitive it is. We operate in 41 states and must keep up with all the legal aspects of the industry down to a county/city level. Our customers are mostly in the trucking industry or a traveling casual customer who are both going to another destination. If we sell specific items to them and they travel with these products they could face any legal issues across state lines—something we must research when we want to bring in new items.

How did the pandemic change your category?
The pandemic has been interesting for tobacco. Some areas will grow double digits while the usage opportunity increases when more customers are working remotely, and you could see the numbers flip when offices opened back up as mandates loosened. Pantry loading was something we noticed heavily, reducing the numbers of transactions but increasing the overall basket. I had never seen boxes of cigars being purchased in our locations before the pandemic and now it is the new normal. This coupled with the inventory allocations and out-of-stocks made retailers become nimbler with their product mix.

What are your goals for 2022?
One of my department’s goals is to be the most innovative experience on the highway, and a goal of mine plays off this with enhancing the backbar experience. All customers that purchase something at our stores see the tobacco space—they may not buy a product from it—but it is behind our cashiers and creates the ambiance for the space. I want to make this space pop to help the overall appearance of the store.

What are the biggest challenges?
Legal issues and restrictions within the categories have always been a challenge. We see flavor bans monthly down to the county levels and must have the plans in place in case they pass. The premarket tobacco product applications (PMTAs) statuses have not been completed so we must decide what new products we want to bring in and if the reward is worth the potential risk. Federal excise tax and state excise tax increases or adjustments, along with state minimums that must be maintained [are another challenge]. One of the additional challenges with my categories and Love’s is making sure we align with our company values and culture, [and asking], “Does this product fit with who we are and the image we want to put in front of our customers?”

What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
Continuing to watch the growth of Love’s and the people I work with. We all have great strategies that we are working on in my department, and I enjoy seeing them come to life. [I look forward to] watching the development and successes of my peers and continuing my own personal development. People are the key to success for any company. To be able to watch everyone evolve professionally and personally is a wonderful experience.