Meet CSP's 2018 Category Managers of the Year

Category Managers of the Year

CHICAGO -- The convenience-retailing industry is experiencing rapid consolidation, digital disruption and nonstop regulatory restrictions. And yet category managers take these challenges head-on, driving traffic and sales for their brands despite the headwinds of the marketplace.

It’s with this strategic determination in mind that CSP crowns—and celebrates—its 2018 Category Managers of the Year.

Each spring, suppliers nominate their picks for best-in-class category managers. From there, finalists are chosen in six core in-store categories based on who received the largest number of nominations. A three-month voting period follows to determine the winners, and the results are revealed live on stage at our annual Convenience Retailing University.

This year’s honorees reflect the intelligence, character and grit it takes to thrive in retailing today. From the entire CSP team, congratulations to the winners, and thank you for sharing your expertise with our readers.

Portraits by Paddy Mills from photographs by W. Scott Mitchell

General Merchandise/HBC: Richard Ginther, Kum & Go

Richard Ginther, Kum & Go

Richard Ginther has been in retail for more than 38 years: 25 years in grocery and 13 in convenience. He joined West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go in 2005 and became a category manager in 2009,  handling general merchandise and health and beauty care (HBC).

Q: How have you changed your general merchandise (GM) and HBC sets in the past year?

A: We have removed DVDs, souvenirs, greeting cards, audio books and travel games. We expanded a year-round seasonal Kum & Go wearable and Bluetooth equipment sections. We underwent a major HBC reset to capture additional multidose sales in pain relief, upper respiratory and stomach upper-gastrointestinal subcategories and to add new products to eye care, first aid, skin care and hair care.

Q: Do you use category captains?

A: SRP Cos. is our GM partner and Lil’ Drug Store is our HBC partner. We develop annual business plans with monthly sales goals around the four P’s of marketing: product, price, placement and promotion.

Q: What type of information guides your decisions?

A: Internal data includes total sales; sales per point of distribution; unit sales; sales by day; sales by time of day; sales indexes by market, region or state; and loyalty data. External data includes NACS state of the industry, Nielsen and IRI to benchmark performance and assortment planning tools to determine the incremental volume of existing SKUs.

Q: What’s new in GM that has your focus?

A: Localized wearables and novelties. Stores near universities will carry a different assortment from stores on interstates or suburban stores.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge in managing GM and HBC?

A: Determining the time dedicated to localizing the assortment to maximize sales weighed against the time spent maintaining complexity of layouts and plan-o-grams.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: Definitely a lighter. I would want to make sure to have heat [and] cooked food, and fend off any predators.

“We develop annual business plans with monthly sales goals around the four P’s of marketing: product, price, placement and promotion.”

Tobacco/OTP: Kraig Knudsen, Circle K

Kraig Knudsen, Circle K

For more than 30 years, Kraig Knudsen has worked in the tobacco industry, gaining much of his  experience with R.J. Reynolds. His c-store “adventure” began in 2015 with Circle K’s Heartland division, based in Lisle, Ill., where he is category manager of tobacco products.

Q: Any recent changes to your tobacco sets you can share?

A: Our tobacco sets are constantly changing to accommodate consumer demand and opportunities. Where possible, I am downsizing the cigarette sections and making more room for OTP (other tobacco products).

Q: What data do you rely on to guide your decisions?

A: In addition to our internal data, like most, I review Nielsen and IRI. I also lean on my vendor partners for insights. When I am in stores, I keep my eyes and ears open. I learn quite a bit from watching consumers in action.

Q: What new products are especially promising right now?

A: Circle K’s private-label cigarette brand Traffic. It is a very high-quality product at a great price. Our customers get great value. Outside of that, it is the entire innovation area. A year from now, I will be talking about the success we had on a product line that we currently do not even have. Now that’s exciting.

Q: What’s most challenging about managing the tobacco category?

A: The regulatory environment. Local ordinances occur with very little notice or consistency. A patchwork of local rules and regulations can sometimes make it difficult to be in full compliance from an operational aspect. No matter where the rules originate, we take our responsibility very seriously and will do our best to be in full compliance.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: That would have to be a Juul (electronic vaporizer). If Gilligan had one, I am pretty sure that the professor would have been able to break apart the technology in it and build a satellite or something to get rescued.

“A year from now, I will be talking about the success we had on a product line that we currently do not even have.”

Packaged Beverages: Whitney Simpson Winstead, Pilot Flying J

Whitney Simpson Winstead, Piot Flying J

Whitney Simpson Winstead has worked for Pilot Flying J, Knoxville, Tenn., for more than eight years, with the past four years spent as category manager for packaged beverages.

Q: What changes have you made to your set in the past year?

A: We implemented a strategy where we plan-o-grammed our sets based on guest need states instead of the traditional subcategory-door approach to merchandise the vault in the way guests shop. This also gave us more flexibility to allocate space to growth subcategories without being constrained by subcategory doors. And we clustered our stores into four distinct groups and plan-o-grammed each cluster differently based on its behavior.

Q: What role do category captains have in your stores?

A: We collaborate with many of our vendor partners to understand consumer insights, analyze our business and draw actionable conclusions and create meaningful promotions for our guests.

Q: What kind of data do you rely on to make decisions?

A: We use our internal data as well as industry data from Nielsen, IRI and Wells Fargo.

Q: Can you share a noteworthy promotion from the past year?

A: We partnered with the grocery team to implement our Thungry promotion, where our guests can take advantage of rotating deals within the snack and candy categories with the purchase of any packaged beverage.

Q: What do you find toughest about managing the packaged-beverage category?

A: With a fixed amount of space and constant innovation from our vendor partners, it can be challenging determining which new products to test or include in our sets, knowing you often have to remove a product or reduce a subcategory’s space to accommodate.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: A gallon of water!

“With a fixed amount of space and constant innovation from our vendor partners, it can be challenging determining which new products to test or include in our sets.”

Snack & Candy: Kurt Fraschetti, Circle K

Kurt Fraschetti, Circle K

Kurt Fraschetti had a history of retail operations, buying and category management in the grocery channel before joining the convenience world in 2015 via Circle K’s Great Lakes division, Akron, Ohio, where he is category manager of snacks and candy.

Q: How have you changed your snacks and candy category sets, and why?

A: I wish we could triple our space in snacks and candy, but doesn’t every category manager want more space? We have found success moving into value-type stand-up bags, as well as leaning heavily into manufacturers’ big bets.

Q: What data helps you manage the category?

A: I find internal scan data to be most credible, and I fill any voids or competitive data with IRI and Nielsen.

Q: Which new products in your categories are you especially excited about?

A: I am really excited about the Reese’s Outrageous. The bar is a home run, and we are based in a very strong Reese’s market. This item will be a needle mover for the category. As a sleeper item, I think the Milky Way Fudge has staying power. It is unique to the category and will be well-received by our customers.

Q: What is the toughest thing about managing snacks and candy?

A: Balancing the healthy-eating shift. Our core customers still want the indulgent snack, but the focus on health, ingredients and labels continues to increase. Finding the right SKU optimization while providing the necessary better-for-you options will be a balancing act for years to come.

Q: What are your plans for this year?

A: New items are a big focus, as well as capturing the incremental seasonal shopper.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: Gum!

“I wish we could triple our space in snacks and candy, but doesn’t every category manager want more space?”

Foodservice: Greg Lorance, Cumberland Farms

Greg Lorance, Cumberland Farms

Twenty-six years ago, at age 18, Greg Lorance started with Cumberland Farms, Westborough, Mass., as a third-shift clerk and worked his way “up and through.” He has been in category management since 2004, focusing now on dispensed beverages and foodservice.

Q: How has Cumberland Farms’ dispensed-beverage offer changed over the past year?

A: We’ve added cold brew and super-automatic espresso machines. We continue to innovate with flavors, [limited-time-only offers] and coffees. On the fountain side, we’re constantly tweaking the offering.

Q: What type of information do you rely on to manage the category?

A: I pay most attention to restaurant-industry data. I ask vendors about restaurant trends, and what’s happening in the foodservice industry. I don’t look at c-stores in particular. I look for information on share of stomach and beverage purchases out of home.

Q: Where do you see c-store foodservice heading?

A: Espresso-based drinks are where things are shifting in the next five to 10 years. Millennials are more open to that type of drink than other groups. They’re more open to foodservice from c-stores because they don’t carry with them the memory of the stigma that the industry had years ago when stores were less clean and less foodservice-ready.

Q: What’s most difficult about managing foodservice as a category?

A: The change in the paradigm. Winning credibility in foodservice. It’s a continuing, uphill battle. We’re winning it, we’ve made huge headway, but it’s a continuing process.

Q: What’s new for your offer in 2018?

A: A lot more of the same. If you find a strategy that works, stick with it and keep harvesting until it no longer provides you with yields.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: Our Farmhouse Blend coffee.

“If you find a strategy that works, stick with it and keep harvesting until it no longer provides you with yields.”

Multiple Categories: Aaron Mace, Dash In Food Stores

Aaron Mace, Dash In Food Stores

With a passion for data and innovation, Aaron Mace has been on “a great journey” as a category manager for Dash In Food Stores, La Plata, Md., handling snacks and candy, nonalcohol packaged beverages and more.

Q: What are some recent changes you have made in your categories’ sets?

A: We continue to push the envelope with brands such as Chocolove and Divine Chocolate in the premium-chocolate space. We know we need to keep exploring innovation to drive excitement and growth; however, we’ve also decided to stay competitive in mainstream chocolate. While many retailers have increased their king-size chocolate-bar retail promotions to two for $3.33 or two for $3.50, we’ve decided to maintain an aggressive price point at two for $3.

Q: Do you use category captains?

A: I tend to take on that role myself. I do my best to gather deep insights and data from as many suppliers and brokers as possible. I review all of that data, bump it up against our internal sales trends and then draw conclusions.

Q: What’s been a recent successful promotion?

A: We’ve had great success with a two-for-$4 promotion on premium 1-liter water. Brands such as Fiji immediately jump from a No. 20 SKU to the top five.

Q: What are the most promising new products in your categories?

A: I’m excited about Red Elixir functional energy drinks. They contain red algae, which is flavorless but offers health benefits.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your categories?

A: To decide among so many amazing products. The constant stream of innovation from suppliers is phenomenal but somewhat overwhelming. It’s a great problem to have.

Q: Imagine you are stranded on a deserted island. What item from your category would you want to have?

A: Without a doubt, it would be Waiakea premium water. It has beautiful packaging, and with each sip I feel healthy, hydrated and a step closer to the Hawaiian Islands.

“The constant stream of innovation from suppliers is ... a great problem to have.”

Click here to read CSP's complete 2018 Category Management Handbook.