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Indie Closeup: Schooling the Competition, Crunching Solid Numbers

Jon and Lori Sanders made a foray into retail in their western Michigan town 12 years ago—and they haven’t looked back
The Reef
Photograph courtesy of Reef Convenience Store

SPRING LAKE, Mich. — An accountant and elementary school teacher by trades, Jon Sanders and his wife Lori took a sharp left turn in 2010 when they tabled their careers and entered the retail operating world. That’s when the couple took the keys to Reef Convenience Store, Spring Lake, Mich.

The move seemed like a stretch until considering that Jon Sanders is proficient with numbers as a longtime accountant—so the books each quarter will reconcile—and Lori Sanders was a longtime teacher and, quite frankly, what don’t teachers know how to do. 

Reef Convenience Store, which doesn’t sell gasoline and has retail roots tracing to the mid-1950s, was acquired by the Sanders’ 12 years ago when the unit closed down following the former owners filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

“I knew one day I wanted to own my own business, so when Reef was up for sale I said to Lori, ‘We can do this.’ The store had been a grocery store and meat market. When the financial bubble occurred in 2008, the owner fell on hard times,” Jon Sanders said.

Jon Sanders
Jon Sanders

The store, which sits in the shadow of Lake Michigan near both Muskegon and Holland, is operating in the black thanks to a host of solid decision-making, despite the couple acquiring the store due to one catastrophic event—the financial crash of 2008—and then enduring a pandemic a decade later.

They turned the challenge into an advantage by serving as the local go-to place to safely shop and also hear a friendly voice—Reef has three employees, one full-timer who’s been with the store for more than 10 years, and two part-timers who’ve been on board since fall 2021.

Jon Sanders recently spoke with CSP about various business-related topics at Reef Convenience Store. 

Q: How has business changed for Reef Convenience Stores during the post-pandemic era?

A: Business is still strong, but we are facing some difficulties with shortages in the supply chain, inflation and finding reliable employees. We have had to learn and adapt. The supply chain problems and out-of-stocks are getting better, but it’s still an issue. We suggest substitutions for items we can’t get and will make special orders for alternatives if we can get them.  

Seems like every order I accept, we see the prices go up. I don’t want to diminish margins but also don’t want to appear to the customer as though I’m gouging. It’s a constant balancing act. Lori and I worked far more hours than we’d have liked, and spent a lot of time trying to hire qualified people—even with a much higher pay rate than what we had budgeted. After calling so many candidates and dealing with an abundance of no-shows for interviews, we finally are fully staffed again with an awesome crew. 

Q: Describe your geographic outlay?

A: We’re located in a small town along the Lake Michigan shoreline, with some inland lakes and rivers. During the long cold winter months, we see a definite slowdown. The locals carry us through and usually want the same things every visit. As such, we don’t bring in a lot of new things during this time. We discount slower-moving items to get them out and make room for new things for the busy season—that’s when the snow birds, tourists, boaters, fishermen and cottagers return. I’m seeing an increase in demand for craft and small batch liquor, especially bourbon.   

Q: What food and beverage categories have been flourishing?

A: Hard seltzers have been a huge seller. Every brewer now seems to have their version of it.  We only have so much room, so we have to pick and choose. Craft beer is going strong, along with local eggs, honey, ice cream and other dairy products. We put new items on display near the checkout counter so people can see them.

Q: How does the store differentiate itself in the local market from a competitive standpoint?

A: One of our biggest selling points is our staff. When I hire someone, I look for a person that can connect with customers. I stress getting to know customers by name, engaging in conversation with them if possible, getting to know them and their families, being honest with them and letting them know they’re appreciated. We have customers going out of their way to pass on our competitors to come to our store because of this. If somebody wants an item that we don’t carry, we get it if we can, which results in return visits and becoming regulars. 

Q: How would you describe the breadth and depth of local retail competition near the store, from c-store to grocery and big box?

A: We are the only store in about a mile radius, so that helps. In about a 2-mile radius, there are several convenience-store chains, a dollar store and grocery store that carry many of the same items we do.  

Q: Have you experienced supply chain/distribution issues during the post-COVID-19 era?

A: The supply chain problems still exist and have to be dealt with. Customers are understanding for the most part, but this does result in lost sales and some unhappy people. We try to suggestively sell a different size or a comparable product for what they’re seeking. Product categories that have been vulnerable include canned beverages due to the aluminum shortage, and grocery items are down in supply. Soup and random items such as maraschino cherries, sweet snacks and potato chips are also a problem.


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