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Indie Closeup: Daypart Believer

Alabama retailer Jonathan Tang wants you to think Tang Marts all day long; he’s incentivizing across several levels
tang mart
Photograph courtesy of Tang Mart

GADSEND, Ala. — Call Jonathan Tang, owner of Tang Marts Inc., a five-store c-store company based in Gadsden, Ala., a daypart believer and achiever. The proprietor, with stores northeast of Birmingham, believes customers frequenting his locations once a day simply isn’t cutting it.

Tang’s retail blueprint is loftier than a daily one-off. “If you have a great brand, why not leverage it to the hilt. Why not offer your advantage to people who demand quality service, clean, well-lit and well-stocked stores,” said Tang. “The goal is to be your option on the way to work, during the middle of the day and on your way home.”

In other words, think Tang Mart all day long—and the Chevron- and Texaco-branded company, owned by IRA Phillips Inc., isn’t disappointing patrons as he executes quality across several levels.

One advantage Tang holds closely is that, despite his stores flying two major oil brands, the c-store mark is his own proprietary concoction, in a state where there are not many independent c-store brand logos to be found: the lion’s share are purely major or independent oil in the form of Chevron, Texaco, Circle K and Murphy USA.

“The goal is that I want to be your option on the way to work, during the middle of the day and on your way home. … Once I get the customer in the store, I win.”

“Looking at our retail landscape, it’s an odd bird,” he said. “There are not many small independent chains, so my goal is to be the ‘local chain.’ I don’t have the scale of a Circle K, but I do have the consistency of offering a local flavor. We want to be ‘the’ chain in these markets across all three dayparts.”

Decade-long Journey

Working for his father-in-law at IRA Phillips Inc., Jonathan Tang founded Tang Mart in 2013.

IRA Phillips is a Chevron and Texaco wholesale fuel supplier and Pacific Pride franchisee, serving northeastern Alabama since 1938. Tang Mart is an independent entity of IRA Phillips.

IRA Phillips owns convenience stores, leasing them to third-parties. When one store became available nine years ago, Tang had the chance to step forward and initialize his own brand.

“I told my father-in-law that I lacked retail experience, but would do the little things—the things I appreciate when I enter a c-store,” he says. Running the first store as a pure Chevron Mart, Tang found he was getting lost in the shuffle amid all other Chevron Marts in the region. “We needed to create a new brand.”

Here are four instructive aspects about Tang Marts—the owner hopes to grow the network to at least eight over the next few years—that allows Tang to perform above and beyond the call:

Designs on gold-standard design: Tang Mart recently incorporated a design embossed with a playful green cartoon dragon theme, which ties to his Chinese heritage. The design, carried out in partnership with Fort Worth, Texas-based Paragon Solutions, was intended to infuse levity and present an approachable, friendly and contemporary feel. The dragon character, the thread across the store motif, was inspired by Yoshi from Nintendo’s Mario video game franchise.

Hot merchandising destination spots include the “Thirsty Dragon” fountain drink program; the “Awaken the Dragon” tagline to support the “Black Dragon” bean-to-cup coffee system; “Yummy Yeti” frozen beverages; and the “Himalayan Beer Cave.”

“We’ve taken some of those subtle branding elements and Asian heritage and carried them throughout the stores. It’s been well-received. I think a lot of people enjoy the fun, playful dragon,” said Tang.

Foodservice destination: Tang Mart offers a host of foodservice staples procured from a local grocery supplier, but carry Tang Mart branding. Stores feature grab-and-go breakfast biscuits in sausage, steak and chicken varieties, pizza and barbecue sandwiches.

“People are moving away from the center-store. What is driving sales is cold vault and food. We have piloted the strategy to become more fluent with that. From a destination standpoint, people are not coming here for a Snickers bar—that’s impulse. We want to emphasize our destination assets of food, fountain and cold vault.”

Being a “craft beer guy, Himalayan Beer Cave offers a little bit for everyone. We dedicate one door to Alabama-produced beers, and feature 25 to 30 as much as we can.”

Tang’s tech reliance: Tang is a firm believer in deploying geo-fence technology as a gateway to win all dayparts. Identifying and targeting consumers in a select fashion, he alerts potential customers about store deals—from those a couple miles away on an interstate or ones who might be filling up at the forecourt.

Tang said geo-fencing, implemented via a third-party tech provider, allows the company to identify who enters stores and to enumerate the repeat customers. “That one trip is great but targeted ads track trends and get people back in. I want to be your stop in the morning, lunch and the evening-time. I put a geo-fence around baseball and soccer fields so when the game’s over, Mom might take the kids to Tang Mart for a F’real shake or smoothie deal. We can track who comes into stores, who clicked on ads and who is coming back. Once I get the customer in the store, I win.”

Tang Mart had been looking at a loyalty program and mobile app, but hasn’t invested to this point. “I don’t have a mobile app—when I do take the plunge I want to do it correctly, rather than find out later it has any flaws.”

Supreme customer service: Engaging, friendly employees (22 either full- or part-time) and superior customers service help the chain stand out. Tang Marts offer free air for tires. “That’s just some goodwill we can give to the community and our customers,” he said. “It also helps drive business as customers fuel up or visit the store while they’re here,” Tang said about a forecourt footprint that has six multipump dispensers (MPDs) and 12 fueling positions at its largest location and three MPDs/six fueling positions at its smallest.

“We want people to feel like they’re welcomed. We want to make sure they have a pleasant experience and that ties into our culture, which is to be a fun place to shop and work. That permeates the whole way through—the fun things that we like to do to make our customers feel welcome.”

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