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Sheetz Challenges Retailers to Reinvent Convenience

Outgoing chairman reflects on his year at the helm of NACS

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Joe Sheetz, descendant of a 111-year-old family business, looks back at his yearlong chairmanship of NACS as a cherished rite of passage—an opportunity to give back to an industry that has supported him and his loved ones for four generations.

The president of Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. says his fellow convenience retailers must stay attuned to their consumers’ wants, desires and evolving definition of convenience. In a Q&A with CSP, Sheetz reflects on his year at the helm of the  nation’s largest c-store association, offering insight and advice to those who continue to navigate the changing tide.


Q: What would you say was your brightest accomplishment as NACS chairman?

A: I have the privilege of being the third member of my family to serve in the chairman role. My uncle Steve and cousin Stan showed me that accomplishments are not about individuals, but shared across the industry. I am very proud of the work NACS continues to do in an eff ort to help its members up their games as competition intensifies. While foodservice is certainly a big part of that, this is not a one-size-fits-all organization. I see innovation happening ... in technology, services, supply chain and many other areas.

Q: Your best experiences?

A: The best experiences always involve the people you meet. I continue to be amazed at how open our members are to sharing ideas that worked out for them, as well as paths they took that ended up being bad decisions.

Q: What were your fellow retailers telling you?

A: The focus this year has definitely been customer traffic. As channels blur and customer lifestyles change, we need to compete hard for customer visits. Running the same old stores isn’t going to cut it in the long run.

Q: What do you see as the channel’s greatest challenge?

A: It’s going to be around differentiating ourselves from the other channels as we attempt to own the convenience occasion. This isn’t just about the products and services we offer; it is about the total customer experience. We need to continue to invest in our facilities, our people and technology.

Q: What other challenges do you see?

A: Labor is a big focus everywhere. Unemployment is as low as it’s been for a decade, so people have options. As employers, we have to be more attractive than the competition. And to use a term from Silicon Valley, everyone is trying to disrupt the model, even with how you use your people. Amazon Go is trying to eliminate labor at the checkout, while other startups are adding labor through delivery of convenience items or even gas.

Q: Can you talk about those disruptors?

A: The focus of these disruptors is how to take costs out of the system or redefine convenience, but they don’t talk about culture. And they need to. The bottom line is that we all have to continue to reinvent ourselves and bring innovation to the industry. All of us sell a lot of the same products. The big difference is how you sell them. We are able to succeed because we have outstanding employees with a commitment to total customer focus. Everything happens because of our people.

Q: When you talk about redefining convenience, what do you mean?

A: There is no standard definition of convenience. It’s whatever people think it should be at that moment. It’s not just a convenient location, because for some people, convenience is delivery or the internet. And it’s not one-stop shopping for a few quick items because some customers want to slow down and relax. So it’s really about understanding what people want, when they want it and how they want it.

Q: What advice would you give the incoming chair?

A: I would give the same advice most of us got when we became new parents. It goes by very quickly, and before you know it, the kids are grown up and out of the house (which resonates with me since my youngest is in college).

Q: Any last thoughts?

A: We have a great story to tell about how we serve our communities in the same way we serve our customers, everything from charitable giving to supporting local first responders. We also need to tell the story about how we invented convenience and continue to find ways to reinvent it for our customers.

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