ALEXANDRIA, Va. — On March 19, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security officially designated convenience stores as essential businesses. It meant the channel was allowed to remain open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also challenged retailers in unanticipated ways in terms of protecting both employees and shoppers.
Those challenges were front and center at the Thriving as an Essential Business retailer panel presented by iSEE Store Innovations and RPP Products Inc. as part of the NACS Crack the Code Experience.
“Very quickly, we learned from each other, from other retailers, from the world,” said Kevin Smartt, CEO and president of Spicewood, Texas-based Kwik Chek Food Stores and the retailer chairman of NACS for 2020-2021. “I’m not saying we didn’t stumble, but I’d say when we did, we picked ourselves up pretty quickly.”
Here are four key strategies shared by Smartt and other retailers on the panel …
1. A clean and safe environment is essential
When asked the key to surviving the early days of the pandemic in Washington state, retailer Don Rhoads, president of The Convenience Group, Vancouver, Wash., said it came down to trust and transparency. “When a customer walks into the store, they need to feel safe and secure,” he said.
That message starts and ends with store employees, meaning masks, sanitizer, shields and more has become must-haves. “It was expensive and not budgeted. … That didn’t matter,” said Phelps. “It was key for employees feeling safe in the store.”
Jon Bratta, president of supplier RPP Products Inc., Bloomington, Calif., added that sanitation stations throughout a site, including the forecourt and employee areas, sends a clear message to shoppers. “Providing those elements for the customers to feel better about the transaction will help retailers do a better job at attracting consumers.”
Smartt said cleanliness and safety measures will continue to be front and center for shoppers. “As consumers look for places to shop, they’ll factor in where they’re comfortable,” he said.
2. Get creative on sourcing
In the early days of the pandemic, masks, hand sanitizer and sneeze guards were hard to come by, and even more so for small operators like Rhoads’ chain of six Minit Mart stores. “We had to get creative,” he said.
That meant finding a hemp producer that could make hand sanitizer both to have available for use throughout the store and to sell to customers. For masks, Rhoads turned to the Northwest Quilters Association.
“It’s been a good lesson for us,” he said. “Embrace your community, embrace those in your region and have them help with certain items you can’t get through the normal supply chain.”
3. Adapt to the new needs of your customers
“With COVID, if you’re doing things the same as you were a year ago, you’re probably not doing it right,” said Dennis Phelps, vice president of merchandising for 7-Eleven Inc., Irving, Texas. “It’s important to look at customer needs, store needs and how we deliver against that.”
With many Kwik Chek locations being the only grocery source in their communities, that sometimes meant shifting to a 24-hour model, Smartt said. It wasn’t always justified from a ROI perspective, he said, but “we knew [the community] needed 24-hour service.”
For 7-Eleven and others, it meant working aggressively to increase delivery, something Phelps said was feasible thanks to the chains’ density. Now, the company is doing more than five times the delivery business it was pre-COVID.
Rhoads said he isn’t sure the demand is there for delivery from his stores but noted that contactless payment and curbside pickup have taken off.
“I didn’t anticipate contactless payment taking off as quickly as it did,” said Smartt, who agreed with Rhoads’ assessment. “It’s accelerated a lot of tech opportunities that might have otherwise taken a couple years.”
4. Stay engaged politically
As NACS chairman, Smartt said there was definitely a correlation between the “essential” designation and the years of industry outreach through NACS Day on the Hill and other events.
“We’ve built a lot of friends in those effort,” he said. “They understand what we do for our communities and how essential it is.”
Smartt added that the designation wasn’t just about convenience retailers, but the customers they serve.
“In many small towns, we’re the only store,” he said. “If we’re not open, someone might have to drive 30 to 40 miles to get bread or milk. That designation for us and our customers was important.”
That viewpoint, according to co-moderator Joe Vonder Haar, sums up the nature of the industry as a whole.
“It’s part of our character to be a part of the community,” said Vonder Haar, CEO of iSEE Store Innovations, St. Louis. “We both serve the community and, when they’re in our stores, we have to protect our community and make it safe. [These retailers provide] an outstanding demonstration of what this industry has done and will continue to do.”