LA PLATA, Md. — Balancing company-operated and franchised convenience stores is difficult for some retailers, but the Wills Group has it down to a tee with its Dash In stores.
“We want to be just as successful within the franchise models as the company-operated models,” said Blackie Wills, executive vice president of convenience retailing for the Wills Group, La Plata, Md. “A lot of times, we'll pilot new product development within our company-operated stores first and try to refine things until we're ready to take it to the franchisee.”
The Wills Group operates 57 Dash In c-stores across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware—80% of which are franchised, said Wills.
Wills discussed his company’s history, competing with brands in its region, technology, foodservice, the COVID-19 pandemic and much more with CSP’s Mitch Morrison in a new Talks From the Top conversation for CSP’s Outlook Leadership Community.
- Click here to join OLC and to watch Wills Group’s on-demand webinar.
Although Dash In’s DNA “comes from petroleum,” the company has focused its efforts on prepared foodservice and technology over the past five years, Wills said.
“We've really kind of struggled with a lack of standardization within our facilities,” he said. “We've got a mix of some newer facilities [and] legacy facilities. And so, we actively pursued a rejuvenation program, where we want to get to a standardized network of prototype facilities.”
On the foodservice side, Dash In has built a made-to-order menu featuring sandwiches, quesadillas, ribs, salads and other customizable items. While the chain may not have landed a “hero product” in the same way Wawa has with its hoagies, Dash In still looks to become synonymous with specific items down the road, Wills said.
“I'm hopeful that in the next year or so, we'll really develop a menu where we can become known for something,” he said. “We've introduced some items in the last year that have done really well. We're looking at ways to kind of carve out something that's unique to Dash In that's dissimilar from what a lot of our competitors would offer.”
Dash In recently implemented self-checkout and is currently developing a loyalty commerce platform and a delivery program—all of which aim to provide a “seamless customer experience,” Wills said. Dash In offers self-checkout at both new builds and rebuilds, and about 80% of its stores with the service are seeing transactions go through self-checkout, he said. Delivery has been more difficult, since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dash In didn’t expect to add the offer for another year or two, Wills said. Nonetheless, the pandemic has given the company an opportunity to “accelerate its strategic roadmap,” he said.
“Self-checkout has been a huge win for us, particularly in the COVID environment,” Wills said. “It's allowed our employees to focus on the customer and less on ‘How am I going to scan this and how am I going to run this transaction?’”
Moving forward, Dash In is upgrading eight to 10 stores per year with its foodservice and technology additions and plans to have all locations—including legacy stores—updated by 2024, Wills said. The foremost goal is to have its food menu, product offering and brand message consistent throughout all 57 stores, he said.
“The nature of the [c-store] landscape is going to change,” he said. “So, some of that we have to embrace and just figure out how to adapt the business model to be successful with that.”