Let me set the stage with an old story. It’s about an independent restaurant owner who had several competitors open up in his market and negatively affect his business. He needed to come up with a marketing plan that would make his restaurant stand out among his competitors. His plan was to advertise the following:
“If you can order something we don’t have, your next selection will be free.”
His business came back, even better than before, and as you can imagine customers were very creative in what they ordered. He planned for that and was able to fill all orders—until one day, when a customer who thought he had the perfect way to get a free meal ordered an elephant ear on a roll.
After a few minutes, the waiter came back to him and said, “Sir, we cannot fill your order, so what would you like for your free meal?” The customer said, “I thought so; you don’t have any elephant ears, right?” The waiter said, “No, we have plenty of elephant ears—we just ran out of rolls.”
There are a couple of takeaways here. The first is obvious: Don’t run out of rolls. But more important, don’t be afraid to offer elephant ears.
What’s Your Elephant Ear?
All convenience stores, be they independents or part of a chain, face the same issue: How do you stand out from your competition when all stores carry basically the same items? For years it was always based on three factors: location, location and, of course, location. I would never diminish the importance of location, but I believe the other two factors to consider are your employees and your offer.
Employees are for another discussion, but what can you offer that your competitors either don’t have or, if they do, you can do it at least as good or better? Coffee comes to mind as a big differentiator for convenience stores, and the industry in general has done a great job with this category. But the new battleground is foodservice, and here the possibilities seem endless.
Many years ago, while working for a chain in Texas, I began offering bagels and cream cheese. Many people told me that you can’t sell bagels in Texas—and they were wrong.
While at a chain in the Midwest, I was told I needed to have the best barbecue in the world because everyone there offered barbecue. While it was true that barbecue was everywhere, it was great barbecue—so why would I want to try to go up against that? So instead I offered a great cheesesteak sandwich, which no one else offered. It became our signature item.
I worked for a chain in the Southeast where someone told me, “Bubba don’t drink no cappuccino.” Of course that person was wrong, and the point stays the same: The industry had always underestimated its customers, thinking all they wanted was brown water and “belly fill” at a cheap price. What they really want is good food for a fair price delivered consistently.
Competition and Co-workers
Look at your competitors, and I don’t just mean other c-stores. See what they offer and ask yourself if you can deliver that item as well or better than they do, and then develop that. But also look at what they are not offering that may meet another consumer need in your market. Develop that as well, and see how your customers react. Your customers will always tell you when you are doing something right or wrong. Just listen to them, pay attention to their actions and react accordingly.
Lean on your employees, too. Have them taste new items and solicit feedback. Your employees are also your customer base; if they like the new item, chances are you may have something that would sell. Ask them if they think your price point is fair. Ask them to tell you what customers are saying about the item so you can alter the recipe if need be. It is rare that the first attempt at developing a new item is perfect; there is usually something that needs to change, or be added or revised. If after that the item still doesn’t work, replace it with the next one.
Don’t be afraid to develop and offer items that you never thought would sell in your markets. Do some trial or focus-group studies, or just roll out something and see if it sticks to the wall.
I am certainly not suggesting that everyone start sourcing elephant ears, but you never know what the next home run will be. Just don’t be afraid to try.
Jerry Weiner retired from Rutter’s Farm Stores in 2015 after 43 years in the c-store industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a CSP member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.