CHICAGO — Tim Young is always ready to pivot when it comes to tweaking his general-merchandise category mix. In late 2020, the category manager, center store, for FiveStar Food Mart, an 80-store chain owned by Newcomb Oil Co., Bardstown, Ky., watched a key pillar of the chain’s automotive set hit the road. RacePro Products were no longer available to FiveStar stores. “We scrambled with [wholesale-distributor] Core-Mark International to chart our next steps. We fortunately filled the void through a partnership with Lucas Oil,” says Young. “A lot of 2021 meant looking at general-merchandise plan-o-grams more on a weekly basis than biweekly or monthly.”
Meanwhile, 375 miles northeast of FiveStar, Peter Kempton Jr. was taking advantage of an opportunity to rejuvenate the health and beauty care department at Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America, operator of the TA, TA Express and Petro Stopping Center c-store chains.
The category manager, center store, for TA, which operates 487 stores, says cold/flu, sinus, allergy meds and other health-related segments died on the vine in 2020 when folks sheltered in place. It rebounded big-time in 2021.
“We allocated more space to vitamins and other wellness and immunity-boosting products last year, such as Emergen-C, all understanding that people were taking their health into their own hands. We actually carved out a dedicated Wellness Center that was more pronounced. It included CBD gummies, Pedialyte, electrolytes and more,” Kempton says.
On the beauty-product side, TA/Petro witnessed more people ramping up social interaction. In response, the chain expanded its men’s specialty grooming section with items from Duke Cannon Supply Co. Grooming supplies in c-stores grew 23% in 2021, according to data firm IRI, Chicago.
“We also put more stock in elbow, back and knee braces, plus compression socks. It’s all to better serve our over-the-road truck-driver clientele,” Kempton says. “Bottom line: We’re always asking what can we do differently.”
Along with the health and beauty care segment tweak came some necessary adjustments to the overall TA/Petro product mix, as any marginal segments had to be displaced or replaced. Kempton and his team thinned out what he calls “promotional” endcaps that consisted of confection, bakery and salty-snack mix items. They were relocated to other zones, both on-floor and in-line.
Across the general-merchandise category, most segments attained growth across both dollars and volume. For the 52-week period ending Dec. 26, 2021, and reflecting total U.S. c-store activity, decisions to become more bullish in the placement of internal analgesics and vitamins made sense; both enjoyed double-digit growth, with analgesics at 10.6% dollar expansion and vitamins 16.3%, according to IRI.
The same occurred with automotive fluids/antifreeze, which saw dollars rise 14.9% over the year period, IRI reported.
The Lucas Oil merchandising partnership in FiveStar Food Stores has now blossomed to achieve double-digit dollar sales growth by the end of 2021 and into 2022, says Young. But it took time. Growing pains are to be expected when a new automotive brand replaces one that garnered loyalty with customers.
“We had committed aggressively to automotive pre-COVID-19. We were pretty deep into RacePro, so when it went away, we faced three empty shelves of octane boosters, fuel system cleaners and more,” says Young. “We scrambled to get that section back together. For an entirely new brand portfolio, you need patience. I allow eight weeks for a new brand or SKU to establish itself.”
Automotive is vital to most operators, who see it as a general-merchandise category driver across various segments, including motor oil, octane boosters and air fresheners. These items had always been vital but hit a trough during COVID-19 when fewer people were on the road.
FiveStar enjoyed merchandising success with several other segments. In 2020, it was games, puzzles and fishing poles. In 2021, it integrated Magnum massage guns in stores in partnership with Novelty Inc.
During the pandemic, pet adoption rose considerably. This made it a no-brainer to expand pet treats (22% c-store growth in 2021) and other pet accessory products, which FiveStar did. “It was a far cry from the year before when we sold very little [pet accessories].”
The vigilance to oversee the category means not just staying on top of changing consumer tendencies, but it begs for preparedness relating to the myriad instances of supply chain disruption.
Summing up the latter, Young says, “You can’t take anything for granted. We have to continue to have an ongoing dialogue with these suppliers and ask, ‘Do you foresee any issue that might change the world on us again?’ And it’s not just the finished products but the packaging. It could be that the glue that keeps a bag sealed is out of stock at the warehouse. We’ll ask, ‘How is it so difficult to get a component that apparently seems so simple to procure?’ It’s not.”
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