Corey Nicely of Pilot Wins Nonalcohol Category Manager of the Year Award

Her focus on energy drinks has grown the last 2 years at the convenience-store chain
Corey Nicely, Pilot
Photograph courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell

Corey Nicely (center) knows what her customers want when it comes to beverages. The truck drivers she serves at Pilot Co.’s 650 travel centers love big 20-ounce sodas and a lot of caffeine, she said.

“They are big energy consumers,” she said. “They want more caffeine than the average consumer, and we have to think about what they need while they’re on the road.”

Energy drinks are popular, and she strives to keep an assortment of products, along with healthier items like water, Nicely said.

Nicely has led the category at Pilot for two years, having moved into category management after a few years as a category coordinator. She’s been with Knoxville, Tennessee-based Pilot for five years.

  • Pilot Co. is No. 15 on CSP’s 2024 Top 40 Update to the 2023 Top 202 ranking of U.S. c-store chains by store count. Watch for the full 2024 Top 202 ranking in the June issue of CSP magazine and in CSP Daily News.

Nicely was one of CSP's seven Category Manager of the Year award winners, in the Nonalcohol Beverages category. Abbey Lewis, vice president of content strategy at content at Informa Connect (left), and Krister Hampton, senior manager of industry engagement at Altria Group Distribution Co. (right), presented the awards.

What do you love about your category?

It's just so fun and it is an ever-changing world. There’s a lot of excitement behind it, whether it's the marketing that comes with it or the brands that come out of the woodwork and bring it to life. It keeps you on your toes. Vendor partners are supportive of what we do, and the brands are really cool.

What recent changes have you made in merchandising?

We’ve had a bigger focus on energy drinks in the last two years, and that's where we have put more focus around space in the cold vault. We’re thinking of things a little bit differently, making space for more energy by using some space on the floor. We want to be sure we have the best experience for our guests.

What tracked well for you in 2023 that continues to do well in 2024?

Energy, of course. And packaged water. Sparkling waters have done well, especially when the weather was so hot. The crazy weather affected everyone’s numbers. I think consumers are looking for healthier as well as carbonation and more flavor. A winner in [water] has been Liquid Death, with the tall can and lots of flavors. And the brand is playful.

Any segments you are shifting away from?

All categories are doing pretty well, but if one seems to be slowing and not following the trajectory we want, we might take away some SKUs [and] cut down on brands offered in a category. Before we take it away completely, we want to make it easier for stores to execute and see if performance improves.

How does geography/location of stores affect your category?

We see more opportunities to regionalize in 2024, especially with Hispanic brands. It's something that we've been working on and will execute this year. We look at stores that over-index in certain products and we’re partnering with a couple of different vendors to bring in more regional items, which I'm excited to see how that shakes out.

Anything unique about Pilot that you’d like to share?

We do our summer resets really early, in the January-February time frame, before spring break. This lets us get ahead of things. We might do some pull and plug in April for new items, but we’re basically set early in the year. We have an awesome person who does all of our resets, with more than 300 planograms.

Any new promotions planned in 2024?

We are looking at the promotion schedule a little differently this year. Instead of looking at the full year, we are going to try some things along the way. We tested some promotions for two-fors' and three-fors' that did really well, and I’m hopeful that putting them into action will be very impactful for us.

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