Trust, Communications Imperative for C-Stores to Thrive

Experts discuss navigating a post-pandemic world
“Moving On: Easing Guests’ Post-Pandemic Fears” seminar at the NACS Show
Photograph by CSP Staff

CHICAGO Trust. It’s a word that at times borders on the cliché, but in today’s COVID-19 world, it really is relevant when it comes to convenience stores.

In the discussion “Moving On: Easing Guests’ Post-Pandemic Fears” at the 2021 NACS Show in Chicago, three experts talked about where they’ve been and where they’re going as the country still grapples with the pandemic.

Today’s new realities include lining up, sanitation and safe distancing, all visible way to let customers know a c-store cares about them and can be trusted.

“You need to be present,” said Charlies McIlvaine (pictured center), chairman and CEO of Canonsburg, Pa.-based Coen Markets. “We tried to have our people in stores. That does foster trust. It means everyone is in this and it’s a frontline business. We had to show demonstrably the elements of what we were trying to do with everyone engaging in it.”

And a major part of trust is communications, he added. While Coen partook in wrapping food, setting up plexiglas shields and other measures, it made a big push to improve communications.

“We increased the frequency of touchpoints, so the cadence of dialogue and openness and accessibility of team members and senior leadership was important,” he said. The company went beyond emails and recorded messages and encouraged open conversions, if only via technological means. “We used technology to personalize something very impersonal.”

Some of “the small stuff” Coen did to raise employee morale included recognizing birthdays and stellar performances. They would hang poster boards and revamped a team newsletter with embedded videos, adding color, highlighting team member activities, adding competitive events and giving away prizes. “We created the Coen community on Facebook so they can share their stories,” McIlvaine said. “This showed we are a community and in it together.”

When moderator Joseph Bona (pictured left), president of New York-based Bona Design Lab, asked if c-stores will once again become the neighborhood grocer, McIlvaine said, “I don’t think so. I think our standard store evolution is toward what we’re very good at: immediate consumption. We are there for that quick-fulfillment ‘point A to point B stop in. We’re very foodcentric and I think our evolution for our chain, and what the pandemic exposed, is we can be a food establishment and food-delivery alternative. About a third of restaurants shut down or went out of business during the pandemic. We went up in sales.”

Mike Sherlock (pictured right), senior vice president – chief product marketing officer at Wawa, Pa.-based  Wawa, said the biggest change in today’s times regards delivery convenience. “There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know how to cook or doesn’t want to, and now we have a generation that wants everything delivered, so for us, we made some slight category changes, but most of those were opportunistic,” he said. “But we weren’t going to reset stores.”

Sherlock said Wawa stores and customers take pride in their friendliness and of customers holding doors for one another and saying, “Thank you.” With the pandemic, Wawa tested automated doors in a store to reduce touchpoints, “and it failed miserably” because it eliminated that human nicety for customers, he said.

Sherlock also said Wawa accelerated its delivery plans, already in the works before the pandemic, by six months, but “the biggest thing we’ve accelerated was our drive-thru model.”

When Bona asked if that “little shelf in the corner,” the pickup and delivery area, will remain, Sherlock said they crammed these areas into the stores quickly out of necessity when the pandemic started. Now, however, they are looking at ways to alter them when remodels take place, so they better fit into a store’s overall design.

Coen, too, had to accelerate a lot at once, McIlvaine said. Coen has had drive-thrus, “but for us, they’re kind of ‘meh,’” he said. So now, Coen is looking at how it can better use the drive-thru infrastructure. “Maybe it’ll involve a pickup window,” he said.

“Some things are here to stay because there’s a fundamental shift in how consumers want and get stuff, and to deny that puts us in peril,” he added. “We all have to plot forward and what we try to do with our chain is try to use this as a leapfrog opportunity to get where we wanted to sooner. We all have these same problems, but you can do it in your own way.

“A great thing is taking advantage of the opportunity,” he added. “This channel has incredible resilience. There’s a need. We lean into it.”

Bona said not to throw the Plexiglas shields away “because who knows what the future holds.

For final advice, Sherlock said to remember that c-stores are in the people business and exist to serve their associates, communities and customers, “and we’re constantly taking a pulse for that.” He said Wawa has been surveying customers about their needs and insights every two months during the pandemic and adjusting accordingly.

“This too will pass," McIlvaine added. We need to be careful of getting caught up in crisis thinking and look more toward how we can make this a positive,” he said. “Look at the people component. We’re psyched. I think we’re a much better company because of that.”

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