CHICAGO and WALTHAM, Mass. — In an exclusive interview, CSP Daily News spoke with Eric Slifka and Mark Cosenza, CEO and senior vice president of retail, respectively, of Global Partners LP, about the future of the coronavirus pandemic and the state of the convenience-store industry.
The interview was part of CSP’s "At Your Convenience" podcast. Listen to the interview here.
- Click here to read CSP’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19 and its effect on convenience stores.
Waltham, Mass.-based Global Partners operates nearly 300 stores in the United States. The company is No. 26 on the Top 40 update to CSP’s 2019 Top 202 ranking of U.S. c-store chains by number of retail outlets. CSP will release the complete 2020 list in June.
Read the full podcast transcription (edited for clarity) below.
Brett: The coronavirus pandemic has shocked the whole world. It has shuttered everything as we know it. In terms of the convenience-store and gas station industry, it hasn't hit us as hard as, let's say, restaurants, but the industry is still grappling and trying to figure out where to go from here. So, I'll start with a general question for the both of you. What is your take on how the convenience-store industry as a whole has responded to the pandemic, and how can this whole situation change how consumers view convenience stores moving forward?
Eric: You know, I'd say overall, the industry's responded quickly and well. I think the feedback that we get from our store managers and associates as they interact with their guests help us deliver what the guests really are looking for. I'd say we're hypersensitive around making sure that everybody, not only our associates but our guests, are safe, and that means taking all the appropriate measures to make sure that those visiting our sites feel comfortable and in fact are safe as they go through the store and collect the items that they need.
Really, the convenience industry is in the best spot to actually deliver to guests what they need better than any of these services that are delivering items via a truck. And we are in the convenience business, so when somebody needs something, they can come to us and shop our stores and get those convenience items immediately. And I think we can serve our communities locally better, sort of better than anybody else, better than the big boxes, better than the large grocery chains. And frankly, we think that we have a niche there in delivering to our local communities that others don't have.
I'll share one quick story with you. I had a store manager. They had an elderly woman who would buy a cup of coffee every day from the store. One of the things that she decided to do is as the pandemic unfolded, the store manager decided to deliver the coffee to this woman's apartment and drop it off for her, and I do think that's what being local is all about. It's taking care of those in need and who need a little bit more help, and it's being able to have a personal touch, and I think being convenient local is what it's all about.
Brett: Is this going to change the way people look at convenience stores? Once this is all said and done, are people going to have a different opinion of what they can get at a convenience store or just the general image of a convenience store?
Eric: You know, I think convenience stores may migrate into different businesses because demand requirements for convenient items such as sanitizers and masks, things that are obvious, people are going to want to be able to pick them up and to use them in a convenient way. If you're traveling and you don't have masks and wipes in your car, you're going to be able to go to a store and get those items. But I think it's like anything else: Safety is the main priority and it's delivering safety to our guests, and it's figuring out how the guests want to transact and making sure that we do it in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
Brett: Yeah, absolutely. So it's apparent you guys are doing great things. We recently covered that you guys are donating fresh food to healthcare first responders in the Massachusetts and Connecticut areas. You have your One for One program, where you're donating meals to the local hospitals. So, Mark, this question is for you: Whether it's at the store level or through more corporate initiatives, how else is Global Partners responding to the pandemic?
Mark: We're in constant communication virtually on a daily basis with our store associates, communicating with them on this very, very fluid process, keeping them up to speed on the progressing ways to keep themselves safe, echoing some of Eric's comments on masks and sanitation methods. We're also making sure we have the right amount of signage out at our locations to make sure our guests are well informed and making sure we're assuring them that they're safe when they're coming into our locations. The sanitation standards are very strong as well, cleaning very sensitive areas on an hourly basis and on a very frequent basis.
Brett: Have you guys put up one of those snazzy sneeze guards yet?
Mark: Well, that's a great question. We have a few initiatives that we've executed on or we'll be executing on, from masks to gloves or installing or have installed literally, as we speak, plexiglass guards at all of our transaction counters at all of our locations. We're making sure the supply chain is tight and making sure we can replenish those sanitation items, not only for our guests but most importantly for our associates. And the morale has been pretty strong. I think our communication and our expeditious process and strategy to get out in front of some of this [helps] make sure our front liners are safe and ... we're giving them the right amount of devices to keep them safe as front liners.
Brett: Eric, this question is for you. As CEO, I want to know: How have you addressed working through the pandemic and communicated these efforts to your employees and customers? What's been your methodology of really telling everyone what your strategy is, and how have you approached this whole process as the leader of Global Partners?
Eric: So, as the pandemic began to occur, we started to create special teams throughout the company to make sure that we had up-to-date data and information as it literally changed daily by state, town, and by the federal government. These groups of people got together and then made sure that we were doing the right thing by our associates in the store, and by our guests as well. But it's really been an incredibly concerted effort to make sure that in fact we have all the right information. Literally you would start on a Monday and you would have a set of rules and guidance, and then three days later those rules and that guidance had changed and been updated at multiple levels and multiple locations. Just making sure that we communicated that to the field through podcasts, through videos, through consistent manager meetings [and] video meetings in multiple ways.
I'd like to say one of the things that's really come out of this is as a group and as a team: We've been able to communicate much better because we've been forced to do it, right?
Eric: And so that communication and that management has been happening more often and daily to make sure that we're up to date with all of the standards and all of the issues as they have been occurring, and then in terms of getting that out to the field, we've been able to deliver that not through just traditional emails, but as I said, through other social media that we use to make sure that we're communicating directly to everyone.
Brett: This question is for the both of you. What other challenges has the pandemic brought upon the convenience-store industry or Global Partners' operations specifically?
Mark: I think this has actually created some opportunities for us. It's accelerated, and we're exploring certain initiatives that we had on our strategic pipeline. The consumer is going to want to transact I believe very differently today and into the future, and we're pushing forward on and we're in tests at a few of our locations as we speak. Let me just give you a few examples.
We're selling goods through certain drive-thrus, making sure we can give the guests the right experience rather than potentially have them come into the store and keep social distancing. We're working through some of our self-checkout initiatives, as I believe you've reported on our curbside pickup. We're thinking through how we can enhance our loyalty app, which is our Alltown Insiders, to further address the need and the want of the consumer of contactless transactions. So we're pushing forward and accelerating in certain cases the needs and the wants of our guests, and going to deliver on that message of keeping our guests safe and with contactless different types of transactions.
Brett: Final question before I let you guys go. This is a fun one. During my quarantine period, my girlfriend and I have become Scrabble enthusiasts, and I've also been bingeing a lot of movies. Are there any quarantine activities either of you have found that you're getting into or just anything you're making a habit of while isolated in your homes?
Eric: Yeah, I'd say ... because I'm not traveling and I'm not out to dinner as often—obviously not at all—what's really happened is I can get up in the morning and I can work out every morning. So now if I don't work out, it's on me. There's not some other excuse.
Brett: That's great. I've been trying to do the same too. Mark, how about you?
Mark: I’d definitely say, like Eric said, not traveling as much or work commitments. Definitely more family time, more time with our dog. I'm not sure if the dog appreciates it as much as I do. But family Zoom has definitely been first in the forefront in our family, so I'm actually in a strange way seeing my family more or our extended family more than we had in the past, which can create a lot of comedy events as those family Zoom events happen.
Brett: Well gentlemen, thank you so much again for your time. You guys are always a pleasure to work with. Stay safe, and try to stick this one out.
Eric: Right, you too. Thank you so much. Stay safe, everyone.