LAS VEGAS -- Every retail journey begins with a step. In the case of Frank Gleeson, president of Aramark Northern Europe and 2018-19 NACS chairman, his journey began more than 30 years ago with a misstep.
Gleeson grew up in retail, working in his family’s general goods store, and then its coffee shop and restaurant businesses. “That’s where I started my own first business—I was barely out of my teens,” Gleeson said during his introductory remarks at the closing general session of the 2018 NACS Show in Las Vegas. “And surprise, surprise, I failed. I was just too young and inexperienced to make it all happen. But it did turn out to be one of my most memorable lessons.”
His next job also had a tinge of failure: working as an area manager of 15 stores for Blockbuster, the now-defunct video rental chain. “As fast as that industry grew, it collapsed,” Gleeson said. “It couldn’t overcome the destructive challenge of Netflix.”
Traditional retailers would be wise to study the “brilliant example of disruption” that is Netflix, and its transformation from a DVD mailing service into an online streaming goliath with 130 million customers worldwide. It demonstrated how brick-and-mortar operators can be caught flat-footed by technological change.
“But there’s an even more impressive statistic: Our industry, the convenience-store industry, has more than 165 million customers per day. That’s half the U.S. population, and that’s not even counting the rest of the world,” Gleeson said. “As innovative as Netflix is, our industry is right there. We’ve caused enough disruption of our own, but in doing so, we’ve never lost sight of our customers.”
Gleeson, who joined Aramark in 2014, was also its managing director of foodservice for Ireland and COO of its northern Europe division. Before this, he held retail leadership positions with Statoil Ireland and fuel distributor Topaz Energy Group. He is the first NACS chairman to be based in Europe, and he takes over from outgoing chairman Joe Sheetz, CEO of Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa.
As an example of c-store innovation, Gleeson pointed to his own company’s retail efforts. Aramark partnered with The Maxol Group to bring a food hall concept into its location in Ballycoolin, Ireland, which was featured in NACS’s 2018 Ideas 2 Go program. It’s a demonstration of “foodvenience,” or providing customers with different foodservice brands, segments and dayparts in one location, and “expanded choice where they want and whenever they want it,” Gleeson said.
“Sometimes choices can become boring, so it’s very, very important to keep delivering excitement and giving customers something new,” he said. In this case, Aramark switches out the food concepts in the Ballycoolin food hall every 90 days, rotating in an Indian concept, for example, and rotating out an Italian offer.
“It’s our take on limited-time offers where you focus on one or two menu items—we focus on the entire menu,” he said.
Aramark has also forged a 10-year partnership with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to bring more healthful foods into its c-stores as part of his effort to tackle childhood obesity. In a video clip that Gleeson shared during his speech, Oliver advocated for the c-store industry’s role in expanding food choices.
“C-stores sell to more people every single day globally than any other channel,” Oliver said. “With so much changing, there is so much opportunity to push things forward with healthier, more delicious convenient options.”
Dynamic, progressive moves such as that suggest the c-store industry has not reached the end of its journey, despite the threats posed by concepts such as Amazon Go and online retail.
“Sometimes people say that brick-and-mortar retail is dying. That is simply not true,” Gleeson said. “Boring retail is dying, but our industry is definitely not boring.”
Photograph courtesy of NACS