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Indie Closeup: Catching Up With Couch

Oregon retailer puts customer service first at Stop And Go Mini Mart
Stop And Go Mini Mart
Photograph courtesy of Stop and Go Mini Mart

BEND, Ore. — Want to know the secret behind Kent Couch’s well-oiled customer-service machine? For starters, no “robots” need apply, just energetic personalities wearing “big, bright smiles.”

Success also means hiring individuals seeking second, perhaps, third chances in life. They harbor an inherent desire to flip their script, and also make optimal store ambassadors.

Couch’s script as owner of Stop and Go Mini Mart/Shell, Bend, Ore., is a winning one. All 38 either full- or part-time employees go the extra mile to make customer lives easier, he says. It starts with staff adorned in folded white hats and white slacks, a staff that addresses customers by name more often than not. It continues with the offering of full-service fueling, no self-service provided.

“I think people want to be taken care of,” says Couch, whose family-run business includes his wife and two grown children. “When COVID-19 hit, many folks were down in the dumps. Our staff is trained to not be robots, but are attuned to really talk to people.”

Recruiting employees who can muster up extra customer service over a sustained period is tough, but Couch, the store owner since 1997, finds a way. “We find it’s often easier to find younger people who are more pliable, who we can mold, than with older people who are not apt to change,” says Couch, who retained full staff throughout 2020 except for two workers—one leaving for fear of getting sick and the other to care for a sick parent. He bumped hourly pay an extra dollar an hour at the start of the pandemic began as well.

“Being an independent, we have the ability to be flexible, nimble with decisions.”

“We like to give people who’ve faced challenges, such as addiction or even serving prison time, with opportunities, Couch says, adding that 75% of staff has been in some sort of predicament in life. “Many are facing a last chance. They are some of our best associates, the ones who have faced adversity.”

All Systems Stop and Go

Stop and Go is located in a community of 100,000. Averaging about 2,500 transactions a day, Couch says his store customers are 70% blue-collar tradesmen and construction workers. As such, Couch said he finds solid customer service helps forge relationships and generate additional sales both inside the store and at the pump.

For calendar year 2020, Couch saw overall store receipts rise 27%, with beer and tobacco up 40%. Inside his popular beer cave (a tap growler station is also on premise) larger package-size sales indexed higher, at 53% growth. Bottled wine grew to become his top category, increasing 67%. “We reset this department to capitalize on the performance,” he says.

When more non-regular c-store customers flocked to Stop and Go to do quick shopping, Couch indeed reaped the benefits. But the owner sees it at his job to make that trend stick. “I wonder if we did our job to convince more [occasional] people to remain loyal to Stop and Go when the pandemic subsides,” he said. “Early in the pandemic, we captured some of the business from Walmart, but these retailers eventually recovered quite well. We need to remain resilient.”

Stop and Go Mini Mart/Shell also boasts several other unique advantages to capture and retain new customers, including:

Full-service fueling. A change to state law made self-serve gasoline legal in Oregon as of May 24, but Couch chose to maintain full service. The store lost 18% of its gallons (typically pumps register north of 250,000 gallons per month) but saw profits double during the early pandemic days. “Then we eventually re-gained gallons while also keeping profits high,” Couch said.

Top-notch restrooms. Similar to the approach Couch takes with customer service, he aims to surprise and delight customers in the store’s restrooms, as well, starting with fresh flowers on bathroom countertops. “If we get a bad rating, we track down the customer and inquire what they didn’t like—and then correct it,” says Couch. “Being an independent, we have the ability to be flexible, nimble with decisions.”

Beer blast. Couch’s popular craft-beer tap growler station has remained up and running through the pandemic, but beer distribution issues lurked. “We took a supply hit and it hurt for a while. Local crafts were also hurt by the aluminum can shortage,” he said, citing Bend’s own Boneyard as a top seller in his store. Hard seltzers also thrived as White Claw drove the category north to the point where “we did a reset and gave FMB’s eye-level position and doubled the space.”

Delivery. A proprietary delivery program provides a good bump in sales, but profits are low, Couch said. Top sellers are alcohol beverages, representing 70% of delivery receipts. “We believe we can reach more customers this way—and maybe some will convert to in-store clientele,” says Couch, who invested in a fourth transaction register as delivery sales spiked this year.

As he looks forward and watches his delivery business build momentum, Couch, a risk-taker, and his staff will continue to serve above and beyond the call. The next venture that intrigues him to stay one step ahead: “A drive-thru retail store—one where customers literally drive through the interior to buy food and beverages,” he said.

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