CHICAGO — “Everybody has got their challenges in these crazy times.” That’s how Joe Sheetz framed his take on operating convenience stores in the pandemic reality. And “crazy” seems to be the operative word for Sheetz.
In the first Talks From the Top conversation with a c-store industry leader as part of the newly launched Outlook Leadership Community, CSP’s Mitch Morrison, vice president of retailer relations, talked with Sheetz, the CEO of the Altoona, Pa.-based chain.
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Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the discussion. Sheetz offered details on his experience as a retailer adjusting to the new ways of doing business. “Certainly, nothing's normal, and no two days are the same,” he said. “I think everybody's kind of adjusted and found their rhythm.”
For Sheetz, that not only involved protecting store employees and customers, but also rolling out new services such as scan and go and curbside pickup. He offered details on the strategy behind those rollouts and how they differed from the company’s typical pre-pandemic process. He also talked about “working out the kinks” that come with accelerating the process, and how customers reacted.
The company was able to roll them out in “a crazy short period of time,” he said.
“We were fortunate in that we had a lot of things in test before this ever started,” said Sheetz, referring to the services for which the chain already had a technology “backbone” in place. “Under normal conditions, it might've taken two or three years to roll it out, or certainly some bit of time to make go, no go decisions. And when COVID hit, we decided offense was the best strategy, and we just blew it out the door.”
As the chain has grown—it now has about 600 stores—they have “had to be more process driven,” he said. “You're continuously improving until you feel like, ‘Okay, time to roll it out’.” But because of the pandemic, “we had to suspend all that kind of thinking and just say, ‘Let's just roll it out and we'll figure out the efficiency part later’."
Because of the unusual circumstances, Sheetz said, the chain “benefited by customers giving all of us a little bit of a pass, not expecting everything to be perfect, knowing that people were doing everything they could to make those transactions happen. So we didn't worry as much about the minor mistakes or little details.”
“We learned a valuable lesson because we went significantly faster than we would've ever gone in normal times,” he said. “We're probably a year ahead,” if not more, from where they would have been operating under the traditional process.
Morrison concluded the interview by asking where Sheetz expected the chain, as well as the industry, to be in 2022.
“I think we'll have 60 or 70 more stores than we have right now,” Sheetz said. “We're picking growth up again as we speak. We had a little delay, and it was not self-inflicted. The industry proved how essential we are when they listed us as essential businesses … so we definitely know the public needs us and values us, and we're going to keep growing like crazy."