Company News

Indie Closeup: People Make the Difference

Western Michigan retailer leads with customer service, and everything else falls into place
the reef party store

Convenience-store owners often cite solid customer service as a major reason for their top-and bottom-line success. That’s because “absolute” success is often layered in category management strategies around price, promotion and display. Or tactical buying power. And then there’s the shiny new retail investments inside or at the forecourt that attract customers.

Jon and Joni Sanders, owners of The Reef Party Store in Spring Lake, Michigan, see “people” as the chief difference-maker in building new customer relationships and retaining them for the long haul.

“One of our biggest selling points is our staff,” said Jon Sanders, a former accountant. “We first look for personality—outgoing, clean-cut and dependable in past jobs. I look for a person that can connect with customers. The c-store experience is not required, because Joni and I can train them.”

In addition to the effort of the Sanders, who work regular shifts, the duo relies on one staffer who has been on board for several years. Two or three others have logged less—but sustainable time—while a new employee hired in late September comes armed with solid managerial experience, including time operating an Airbnb.

This hire, said Sanders, adds more firepower to an already formidable staff lineup, for a store located in the shadow of Lake Michigan and a few miles north of Holland, near tourist attraction Grand Haven.

The store does not offer fuel.

Buying Powered Up

The Sanders acquired Reef Convenience Store—1,500 square feet inside and total footprint of 1,900 square feet—in 2010, and have seen their share of ebbs and flows, including the pandemic’s many challenges.

Supply chain issues were part of the problem then, but being affiliated with a larger-size wholesaler-distributor came equipped with some other disappointments. For product procurement, Sanders has long migrated to buying entirely from both Sam’s Club and United Wholesale, with a warehouse in Muskegon, Michigan.

“We think this provides better flexibility, fewer supply chain worries and less out-of-stocks, even a more favorable price,” Sanders said.

Two ways his fulfillment strategy is enhancing profits: with bottled water, Sanders buys a 40-pack at Sam’s Club, establishes a 69-cent price point per 16.9-ounce unit, with his own per-unit cost at only 18 cents.

He stocks Breeze Pro Disposable Vape, with a wholesale per-unit cost of $9.50—and establishes a store price point of $17. “It flies off the shelf, and we profit too. As everyone in this business knows, cigarettes fetch no more than 50 cents per pack,” he said.

Banner Year

In terms of dollar sales, this past year has been “one of the best we’ve had,” said Sanders.

Customer service is instrumental to the banner year. “There’s ongoing inflation, of course, which can always impact dollars,” he said. “The key for us is that the customer count continues to increase.” Thus, even if per-customer transaction baskets are more modest due to inflation, a growing foot traffic count compensates for that.

“More foot traffic has to do with the fact people want to come here knowing they’ll be given the ‘red carpet’ treatment. Many can get the same products at the same price at a Meijer store closer to where they live—but come to us because the treatment is the tipping point,” he said.

When it comes to each transaction, Sanders is willing to take a loss if customers lodge complaints about a sale, as he looks at success with the long view.

“I want to bring customers back again and again,” he said. “If people return with an item and have any questions, we’ll take it back and give a store credit, no questions asked. If they don’t have the precise amount for a purchase, we’ll kick in 50 cents. They remember that. We like to plant the seed and get them back as regulars.”

The Reef File

Winning promotion: If the NFL Detroit Lions win that week, Sanders activates a short-duration deal where customers score sweet price on various beer and wine brands.

Commitment to local: “I support Michigan brands, many of them beer, wine and spirits,” he said. These include Journeyman Distillery, in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Iron Fish Distillery, in Thompsonville, Michigan. “People come from out of town seeking what we call the ‘Michigan experience.’ These spirits carry higher price points, but most find them worth it. In addition to bottled spirits, people have also begun buying premixed canned cocktails. The quality of many have improved.”

Labor dilemma: While Sanders is locked and loaded with staff, getting there has not been a slam-dunk, as many c-store retailers can relate. “The pool of potential employees remains terrible,” he said. “The quality of candidates lacks. People apply online through Indeed, I’ll call them back but often don’t hear back. When a job is been offered and accepted, we’ve had some who fail to show up at all.”

What 2024 holds: “We may take a step back, as we’re in our early 60s, and do the ‘bucket list’ trips we’ve always talked about,” said Sanders. “The new employee we hired has solid managerial experience that would potentially allow us to reduce shifts and remove some responsibilities from our plate.”

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