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Breaking the Box

Thorntons talks new store design, managing change

GLENDALE, Ariz.-- "Commodity hell" is the pit to avoid.

It's where customers have broken a brand offer down to its common denominator, where the only differentiator is price. That's where designer Kevin Kelley advised retailers to never end up. Kelley, founder of design firm Shook Kelley, with offices in Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C., along with Tony Harris, COO of Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons Inc., addressed about 400 retailers and attendees at the annual Convenience Retailing University (CRU), a CSP-sponsored networking and education-focused gathering.

Thorntons currently has two new stores in Florida with two more under construction that feature a dramatic, dual-box design. The construction joins two separate boxes, one bigger than the other, suggesting a break from the traditional c-store. The design allows for the introduction of a distinct foodservice offer and essentially "creates a separate store," Kelley said.

Though they kept design specifics close to the vest, the two agreed that one of the tougher lessons regarding the project was culture. Part of the difficulty for new ideas to take root is a history of success, Harris said. So when the topic of change emerged, the reaction was, "Why?"

The challenge, Harris said, was to get his teams to think "the past is the past. What's more fun is what's next."

One of the mistakes Kelley admitted to in his work with Thorntons was trying to push too much onto the company at one time. He spoke of the nature of his work across many retail channels, with the goal of creating a "transformational" concept. Retailers today differentiate themselves by offering a unique brand experience, he said, adding "the only source of profit is to innovate and differentiate."

Ultimately, in-house project managers altered the original concept, with many but not all pieces of the original design becoming reality. That's not to say the stores were unsuccessful. Far from it. He said Thorntons' newly designed store is far exceeding industry averages.

In hindsight, Harris said that what's important about change is creating a sense of urgency, which often means identifying a champion within the company who's there to overcome obstacles.

Operators in general have a vast opportunity regarding brand and uplifting what customers currently experience at c-stores, Kelley said. Facilities are typically not attractive. Gray cement forecourts create a harsh environment. There's no place to comfortably eat. And at many stores, wait times for checkout are too long.

The experience people have in the store can influence sales, Kelley said, showing a slide of a store selling wine next to a rack for windshield brushes. "You can hear [the retailer] saying, 'We tried wine and it doesn't sell."

For c-stores, the answers are not simple. On one hand, retailers want to offer quick service and the ability for a customer to grab a desired item, pay and leave. But they also want to slow customers down, interrupt the quick-trip mission to possibly sell more merchandise.

Kelley said in order to develop stores that will be relevant to tomorrow's consumers, retailers need to evaluate trends across channels, understand what they can do differently and "foster a culture of innovation."


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