2020 Category Managers of the Year
NEW ORLEANS — CSP’s 2020 Category Manager of the Year awards honor the women and men who keep their product offers on the cutting edge while maintaining the tried-and-true elements of a set to achieve a balance of brands, flavors and SKUs that drive the most sales in a respective product category.
The awards, now in their fifth year, hit several new highs in this edition. First among them was the number and quality of nominations we received. Suppliers tipped their hats toward well-rounded category managers—not only the ones who are committed partners, willing to take risks or brainstorm cutting-edge promotions, but also the category managers who do all of that and more.
Second, we added cannabidiol (CBD) products as an awards category. While 2019 clearly was a breakout year for CBD, the ingredient can be found in products across several traditional categories, including snacks, candy, beverages and general merchandise. And while each retailer is addressing the products a little bit differently, we found suppliers passionate about the category managers they nominated in the new category. Another new area of recognition is technology and operations, a crucial behind-the-scenes component of the success of today’s winning category managers.
Also new this year was how we announced our winners. A plated dinner during CSP’s 2020 Convenience Retailing University, held in February in New Orleans, proved the perfect venue to honor our winners, each of whom received thunderous applause from our packed audience of attendees.
- Next year’s Convenience Retailing University will encourage attendees to “Stay on Track” as CSP repeats its category-specific breakout sessions. It will be held Feb. 23-24, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Click here for more information.
In the following slides, we take a look at our winning retailers and ask them about the smart decisions and programs that make them the best of the best. From the entire CSP team, congratulations to the winners and thanks for setting a model of excellence.
Paul Crozier: King of Crossover
Sales manager of cigarettes, tobacco, cannabidiol (CBD) and lottery for Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa.
Paul Crozier, sales manager of cigarettes, tobacco, cannabidiol (CBD) and lottery for Sheetz Inc., has been with the Altoona, Pa.-based company since 2004. His first job: working on store-specific cigarette plan-o-grams as a temporary office employee. Now, with his team, he manages several key convenience categories.
How would you describe the state of CBD in c-stores?
It’s an exciting category to be a part of. Right now, it’s pretty early. We’re learning, testing new items and assortments. It has the potential to be a $6 billion industry. For us, it’s pretty small, but there’s a lot of upward potential. Where it will have more of a runway is when more people understand what the product is and what it isn’t. Consumer education is definitely a challenge.
What do you like most about the category?
Working with our suppliers to deliver products that our customers want at great pricing and evaluating those results and making adjustments. Category management overall is what I’m describing. It’s interesting keeping track of all the regulatory stuff and also, at the same time, meeting and working with new vendors, because a lot of these guys are people no one has worked with before.
What’s your category management philosophy?
Data is the most important thing—leveraging internal and external market data to make logical and strategic decisions, not assumption-based decisions.
Which metrics matter most to you?
Right now, it’s product turns. CBD products are not exactly a low-cost item, so you don’t want to have higher-cost items just sitting around. You need to make sure you’re getting inventory turns, and you have to be really smart in managing your inventory. Some things come in a case of 24. That’s probably not a great idea with a new category.
What are your goals for the CBD category in 2020?
Managing turns and staying on top of all the regulation. Also seeing what products come out and testing to find out what really resonates with consumers.
Which segments of the category are doing best?
It’s too early to tell which segments are really winning. We’ve been in the CBD world since May, and we’ve changed our assortment a couple times already.
What are your biggest challenges?
You have to be mindful of who you partner with. It should not be taken lightly. You have to be even more careful with this category. Do they have appropriate insurance? Are they doing third-party testing on potency?
How is Sheetz merchandising and promoting the category?
We have CBD behind the counter, and we age-restrict it at 18. We have a dedicated fixture for it.
Tell us about your core customer.
CBD customers are more likely to use tobacco products, so it’s an interesting crossover there with the other categories I manage. The research also shows females slightly higher than males; the largest age group is [ages] 35 to 49.
Do you use CBD products yourself?
Yes, I try everything we bring in.
Kraig Knudsen: ‘The Tobacco Guy’
Category manager for Circle K’s Heartland division, Lisle, Ill.
Kraig Knudsen, category manager for Circle K’s Heartland division, Lisle, Ill., has been in the tobacco industry for 36 years. Known to co-workers as “the tobacco guy,” Knudsen started his career at Winston-Salem, N.C.-based R.J. Reynolds, where he worked in field sales for 23 years. He was a consultant for retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and the government for six years before taking on his current role with Laval, Quebec-based Alimentation Couche-Tard, the parent company of the Circle K convenience chain.
What do you like most about the tobacco category?
If nothing else, the tobacco category is far from boring. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities. Aside from the actual work, however, the people are my favorite aspect. Many of them have become longtime friends.
Describe your category management philosophy.
It’s my job to listen to customers. I need to provide them with the products they want at a fair price while meeting my own financial objectives. This is easier said than done.
Tell us about your category goals for 2020.
This year is going to be challenging. Right out of the chute, tobacco 21 took place—where the federal government raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21—and now the more recent vapor flavor bans. These immediately affected volume. My goal will be to find new products and promotions that will help me replace the lost volume.
What are some promising new products?
New “modern oral” products are showing a great deal of positive momentum, and it is not just Zyn. On, Velo and Dryft are catching the eye of consumers. I hope that this trend continues. I also think that we will still see some great new vapor products. For example, [vape brand] Glas has been performing well, even at a premium price point.
What are your biggest challenges?
Obviously, regulation is an issue. In addition to that, however, is effective merchandising. In a world of continuous change, merchandising flexibility is critical. Circle K is just wrapping up a refreshed tobacco merchandising look in over 6,000 locations. We could not have achieved this without the flexible options and solutions provided to us by our primary merchandising vendor, America Display.
How have you partnered with your category captains?
I am fortunate in that I can rely on multiple manufacturing partners to assist me in growing my overall business. This goes way beyond just Altria. Swisher, Swedish Match, Premier, Liggett, Juul, NJOY and Kretek have all become trusted advisers to me.
What makes you most passionate?
I hate to see my customers bullied by government regulators. I am committed to the availability of innovative, alternative products, which I believe are better options. While I do not recommend smoking to anyone, people should have the right to make their own personal decisions concerning tobacco and nicotine usage.
Click here to review 2019 sales data in the tobacco category.
Michael “MJ” Simons: Flex Time
Category manager for MAPCO Express, Franklin, Tenn.
Michael “MJ” Simons, category manager for MAPCO Express, has been with the Franklin, Tenn.-based chain for three years and in the c-store industry for 12. He has worked jobs from field merchandiser to district manager and category manager, in which he has covered all categories, at least briefly. For him, being flexible and having variety in the cold vault is key.
What do you like most about working with packaged beverages?
The challenge and the excitement both come from the same form. It’s all the innovation and where everything’s going these days. You can’t just put the basics in your cooler anymore and hope to succeed—you’ve got to be able to flow and change and keep your eye on the new items that are going to be up and coming, that people are going to be looking for, and take advantage of them when you can. So it keeps you busy, but it keeps it exciting also.
How would you describe your category management philosophy?
When I approach it every year, I always try to convince myself that I have to get as much variety in the cold vault as I possibly can where it makes sense. I have to be flexible. I have to take out personal bias and all that and do the best I can with what we have available and what’s upcoming. And as far as deals with the vendors and distributors, I’ve always had an open and honest relationship everywhere I’ve gone, and I pride myself on it.
What new packaged beverage products are you excited about?
We’re going to finally introduce a version of kombucha. [It’s] to be determined exactly which route we go, but we’re going to start putting in those pure health items. … And then looking at possibly introducing CBD-based functional beverages.
What’s your goal for 2020?
My goal is the same every year—just to do better, and be better and hopefully grow vs. the previous years. And nobody’s perfect. When we make mistakes, we button it up and make it better and fix it as quickly as possible.
What other retailers do you keep an eye on and admire?
I consider everyone my competitor, so I try to keep my eye on everybody. There are some that do certain things very well, some that take advantage of their business and play it to their strength, and I try to pick and choose the best from everybody and hybrid it into a true, pure MAPCO approach to moving forward with the business.
Who is your core customer, and how do you attempt to satisfy them?
I don’t know that we have a pure, defined core customer. … It varies so widely across the board, depending upon our store locations, which is why I try to reach out and have that variety in my cold vault to meet almost everyone’s needs.
Click here to review 2019 sales data in the packaged-beverage category.
Jackie Stalsberg: Deal Maker
Category manager of center store for Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis.
Jackie Stalsberg’s job is no small task. As category manager of center store for Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis., Stalsberg is responsible for keeping full a warehouse that distributes to more than 700 stores and keeping the service level to Kwik Trip’s guests at 100%, she says. Stalsberg has worked at Kwik Trip for five years, and before that, she spent about three decades working in the food and grocery distribution business.
What makes you passionate about working in the center store?
Making that final deal. I love working with the vendors and finding those new products, finding that new niche of a product that’s out there, and learning [about] that new product and then seeing if it’s going to be the right fit for our c-store. C-stores are a little different and Kwik Trips are a little different, because I consider our c-store as “a c-store on steroids.” … We compete with the grocery store more than we compete with another c-store.
What was a recent product you’ve been excited about?
The Edible Cookie Dough [from Cookies-n-Milk Inc., McKinney, Texas]. It’s a refrigerated cookie dough … and you can eat it right out of the cup. And it’s one of those things that’s nostalgic to me—you know, you steal that spoonful out of your mom’s bowl. Well, now it’s available in a cup, and you can eat it right then and there. It just amazes me how much we sell of it.
What are your goals for the category in 2020?
Keeping my margins whole. Beating those vendors up for the best deal. Being the first to the market with those brand-new items. Finding new ways to sell more, make more, finding that empty space in the store. Space is so limited, so finding that empty space to sell that product.
Where does your competitiveness come from?
I’ve always been a competitive person, and I think it’s just something that comes from the Kwik Trip family. We want to be the company that is known out there to have it first, to have the nice stores, the best products [and] the best varieties of products.
What is an interesting promotion that worked well for you?
One of our big things is what I call our “stanchion bowls.” It’s a bowl that we have out front by the checkout. When that guest is standing in line to check out for that 30 seconds that we have them, there’s an acrylic bowl that sits there plumb full of product. Every two weeks, we change out that product. It has a sign on it that says, “Enter here,” and then it has the promotion going on. … We can put hand warmers in there for two weeks, and we sell 70,000 to 75,000 [of them] in two weeks because that item is upfront; it’s a huge impulse, it’s sitting right there.
What makes you so good at what you do?
My passion for it. I love being able to work with my vendors. I love to be able to treat them the way I want to be treated and I get that feeling with my vendors. [Also, Kwik Trip is] a family-owned company … and they treat us like family.
Click here to review 2019 sales data in the candy category, here for snacks and here for general merchandise.
Marissa Tinoco: Base Camp Success
Category manager of foodservice for Army & Air Force Exchange Service, Dallas
Marissa Tinoco, category manager of foodservice for Army & Air Force Exchange Service—the retailer on U.S. Army and Air Force installations worldwide—joined the Dallas-based company in June 2008. Prior to working in convenience, Tinoco was a corporate buyer for luxury department store chain Dillard’s Inc., Little Rock, Ark.
What are your goals for foodservice in 2020?
We’re trying to continue enhancing our customer experience by adding quick-service restaurants (QSRs). We’re planning about 15 to 20 QSRs a year. Snacking and healthier options are a big part of what we’re trying to grow. We just launched a program with Del Monte: We’re about to roll out some ready-pack salads. We’re expanding into healthy options because the military right now is going after a be-fit, healthier-for-you-program.
Which foodservice segments are performing best on base?
Grab-and-go has been huge for us. Not everybody has time to sit and order their specific sandwich or burrito a certain way. We put it out there in warmers and in cabinets so they can take it and go. Breakfast has been a big daypart for us. [Consumers] are looking for that value, that big, hearty sandwich at a great price. The biggest thing for us is hot-to-go burritos and hot-to-go breakfast items. Breakfast sandwiches are the biggest part of our hot-to-go business.
What is challenging you right now?
Labor is a big challenge for everybody in convenience. For us, labor is an even bigger challenge, because we are limited to people who are authorized to be on [a military] base. You’re talking military spouses, military family members. Most people don’t know civilians can go on base and get a job, and that’s probably the last place they’re thinking about. Labor is the biggest issue, but then also space. We want to improve the overall customer experience, but we’re limited to space. Every base has a different type of building. In the new stores that we’re opening, you’re seeing a little bit of that consistency across the board, but we’re tight for space. So when we want to launch a fresh program or get into a new QSR, that’s probably the biggest constraint that we have.
What trends are you watching for 2020?
For one, technology. You’re seeing a lot of technology with ordering through mobile apps and walking up to kiosks and ordering there. But I still think customization is going to be the big thing that people are going to be looking for. Plant-based as well—I haven’t seen it on the roller grills just yet, but I’m sure it’s coming. The whole sustainability part of it too: That’s a big buzzword that you’re hearing and you’re seeing now on packaging or signage. There are a few things that we’re working on internally, but nothing has been confirmed. But the whole sustainability message—millennials are looking for that and feeling good about their choices and their purchases.
Click here to review 2019 trend data in the foodservice category.
Alex Kupper: Consistent Excellence
Category manager of dispensed beverages for Thorntons LLC, Louisville, Ky.
Alex Kupper, category manager of dispensed beverages for Thorntons LLC, Louisville, Ky., joined the company in 2016 as an assistant brand manager before taking on his current role in October 2017. Prior to retail, Kupper was an offensive lineman in the NFL, and he played for the Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills over three seasons.
What’s unique about dispensed beverages?
The biggest thing, compared to other categories, is that you need to influence and be engaging to so many different pieces of the business. That’s what I enjoy doing most: being able to have conversations with our patrons, have conversations with people who build the stores, who upgrade the stores—all the way down. Being able to work cross-functionally with so many different people. That’s in my DNA, and I really enjoy doing it.
Describe Thorntons’ fountain offer.
It varies by store. We have so many different formats. We haven’t really acquired a lot of stores, but we’ve built stores in the past four decades, so if you think all the way back into the ’80s and ’90s, we’ve had stores with only 12 [fountain] heads. Our truckstops now have 24 and everywhere in between. Twenty-four is comfortable, but there are several different layouts.
What’s new in hot dispensed beverages?
We’ve done a few dispensed-category regimes, looking into doing some organic blends and knowing that’s more of a trendier topic with folks. Knowing where the coffee’s coming from—from a single origin—is where we play off right now. We’re in a Jamaican Blue Mountain phase that we’re happy with.
What are your goals for dispensed beverages in 2020?
To align our offer and be regionally focused, all the way down to what fountain heads we offer, to what frozen beverages and alternative beverages we offer. When it comes to what we do in certain pockets of Chicago—one of our biggest markets—there are going to be several different types of influences, guest-wise, all over that demographically diverse area. Continuing that to Florida and Nashville, there are so many different areas where we can tweak things to suit the guests better. That’s really the primary focus for me.
How does Thorntons differentiate its dispensed offer?
In any of the segments, we’re able to provide consistent variety. Whether it be having a full assortment of great coffee or having a full assortment of fountain—whether it’s cup one vs. cup 1,001—making sure that beverage for every guest is the same is where we’re successful. I can monitor it on how well we’re reacting from a service standpoint, all the way down to units through the door.
What’s your biggest challenge in the category?
Knowing what needs to be done when it comes to making tweaks for guest preference and focus. All I have to do is pull up some articles and go out into the marketplace to get the greatest feedback and understand what’s going on. It’s how to put reaction to that feedback. I have to go out and influence [other departments] and make sure that they’re aligned. It’s not the dispensed category manager that’s my job—it’s influencing those other pieces that is the challenge. It’s a comparable challenge that I enjoy. It’s part of the love for the business.
Click here to review 2019 trend data in dispensed beverages.
Technology and Operations
Josh Grayson: Company Man
Operations category manager for TravelCenters of America (TA), Westlake, Ohio
Josh Grayson, operations category manager for TravelCenters of America (TA), Westlake, Ohio, has been with TA since 2007. He started at age 17 as a part-time cashier while still in high school. Grayson went on to manage multiple TA locations before he moved to the company’s loss-prevention department. He transitioned to his current role about two years ago. Grayson’s career path has given him a ground-up perspective of TA that he leverages in his management style.
What do you like most about technology and operations?
The variation and challenges that each program and state brings to the table. My categories are very fluid and always changing—never a dull moment, and nothing ever feels stagnant or boring.
What makes you most passionate about your work?
Being able to create and manage programs that bring a new value to our locations and customers. The ever-changing landscape of retail and new wave of technology is also extremely exciting.
How would you describe your approach to your job?
All programs need a good base or a set of strong “bones” for them to be successful. You need to understand how your employees in the field operate and how your program will realistically be executed. Creating a program with proper support and one that falls in line with existing operation standards is the easiest way to be successful.
What are your goals for 2020?
Continued expansion in Pennsylvania with video gaming terminals will be a major focus. This is a new and very profitable venture for the state. It’s extremely important for retailers to get in early and establish themselves in the market with a reliable operator. Additionally, review and, hopefully, implementation of various forms of sports wagering will be high on the priority list. With the states being able to dictate legality, it will be a rush for both retailers and vendors to create and implement programs to profit from these law changes.
What are some promising new tech-related offers?
The continued legalization of sports wagering and video gaming terminals, specifically in a retail environment, is very exciting. In the past, these services were chained to casinos or specialty establishments. But with new law changes and states taking a more open stance to gambling, the barriers to entry for a standard retailer are growing much smaller.
What are your biggest challenges?
I manage programs in 43 different states. Navigating the ever-changing laws, regulations and program requirements can be very challenging.
How have you partnered with some of your suppliers?
The [suppliers] that we’ve partnered with for our video gaming terminals have been a major key to our success in that market. They keep updated with market trends, changing laws or pending legislation. They make sure we’re compliant and they help us grow sales whenever possible. Without our operators, we would not be able to run the quality programs that we currently do.
Abigail Cerra: Consumer Advocate
Marketing manager for Cal’s Convenience Inc., Frisco, Texas
As the marketing manager for a relatively new c-store company, Abigail Cerra is putting her stamp on the c-store experience. Cal’s Convenience Inc., Frisco, Texas, formed in 2018 after it acquired more than 200 Stripes sites not included in the deal between Sunoco LP and 7-Eleven Inc. Cal’s forged a commission-agent agreement with Sunoco to own and operate the sites. For Cerra, winning the loyalty of customers to Cal’s stores means not only meeting the high bar set by Stripes but also advancing the retail experience.
Tell us about your background.
I started in the industry as a cashier and worked my way up the ladder, so to speak. I spent two years as a store manager and then transitioned into a pricebook manager role that opened the door to roles in marketing, loyalty, category management and auditing. I have worked in a lot of different retail channels, but convenience will always be my favorite, by far.
How would you describe your category management philosophy? Which metrics are most important?
Category management, to me, is all about the consumer. Which suppliers can provide the products that most meet your consumers’ needs? While the traditional category management key performance indicators will always be relevant, it is more important today to partner with suppliers who have a purpose that aligns with your consumer base rather than the supplier that can provide the best margins and deals.
Where do you see growth opportunities in 2020?
Industrywide, I am excited to see how CBD (cannabidiol) will perform this year as regulations change allowing CBD in food, and how that will impact total store sales.
How about challenges?
Regulations around cigarettes and vapor products will be the biggest challenge in 2020 for the convenience industry.
With that in mind, how do you feel about the outlook for the c-store channel in general?
More and more millennials are turning to the convenience channel to do their grocery shopping. As long as we are implementing the technology that our upcoming generation of consumers are looking for in their shopping experience—frictionless pay, rewards programs, order ahead—then we are looking at opportunity for unlimited growth in the coming years.
Which other retailers do you admire and watch? What do they do well?
My favorite retailer to visit when I am traveling outside of our store reach is Maverik. I admire how well they incorporate their brand throughout all of their platforms, whether it be their store layout, promotional setup or digital media. They just do a great job of tying it all together.