An Upward Trend

More retailers report cautious optimism in Outlook Survey, but success proves highly local.

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

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Competitive Pressures

For the Outlook Survey 2012, CSP asked participants to rank the biggest competitive threats beyond other c-store retailers. Dollar is clearly on retailers’ minds, with nearly 54% choosing dollar stores, followed by drug and grocery.

“The real ones to worry about is dollar stores,” says the St. Louis-area retailer. “I think they have the infrastructure, distribution, where­withal and people in their stores to display merchandise and sell our traditional products.”

Change Afoot

A bout two-thirds of CSP Outlook Survey respondents plan to make a change to their business model in 2013, about the same amount as in previous years. For most, remodeling and refreshing stores was the top activity, while the next-largest group plans to focus on inside sales and adding new profit centers.

For Rutter’s, 2013 will be the continuation of a remodeling cycle. “We go through these cycles where we’re pushing new stores really strong because it’s the nature of where we want to go and how we want to grow,” says Hartman. “Then we’ll back that number down and start pumping into major remodels. So we’re entering the next year or two with a good conservative deployment of capital to put it back into existing stores and get bang for your buck.”

Growth by acquisition was in the plan for more than 27% of respondents, while more than 36% of retailers plan to build new stores. California Retail Management is adding four new Chevron sites in December and January, and it opened a new site in Oahu, Hawaii, in November. It is also in talks to purchase three more locations. Despite a general tightness in lending, Marszal has not had issues finding funding. “Years ago it was so much more difficult for me,” he says, pointing out that the company’s strong business record over the past three decades has worked in its favor.

Meanwhile, Bobby & Steve’s Auto World is working on a couple of acquisitions, as well as developing some land. Regard­ing financing, Scheeler says it “has been a challenge.”

“It’s still pretty tight, especially compared to the lending markets when the company first started in the late ’90s, when money was easy to come by,” he says. “Most of our company’s assets are tied up in land and property, not so much in cash. That puts us in a more challenging position when it comes to wanting to build or acquire.” Regardless, the retailer is feeling aggressive and optimistic about growth in 2013.

Food in Focus

Nearly 40% of Outlook Survey respondents plan to expand foodservice in 2013, with the coffee bar, fountain and proprietary foodservice programs likely to see the most activity.

California Retail Management is highlighting its foodservice program, placing the roller grill in front of cus­tomers as they walk in the store, and upgrading its fountain program in sites with older equipment. “We’re keeping it fresh; eight nozzles on a fountain is not enough anymore,” says manager Annie Marszal. “There are a lot of opportunities for incremental business there. The more appealing it looks, the better it will be.”

Five of Bobby & Steve’s Auto World sites have full, made-to-order kitchens, which churn out a proprietary program. The company plans to bring consistency to all seven sites, either refining the offer or running a franchise out of the kitchens. It is also looking at the potential of installing a commissary for breakfast and deli sand­wiches at one of its sites to add a greater degree of consistency and labor efficiency.

A greater percentage of Outlook Sur­vey 2012 participants said they sell fresh and healthful items compared to those who took the 2011 survey—or more than 73%. Sandwiches and wraps, fresh fruit, and cereal and granola bars are the most popular items, with 83% saying demand is growing for such items.

Bobby & Steve’s has created a big pres­ence for fresh deli sandwiches, salads and wraps, and increased its offer of fresh fruit, yogurt parfaits, veggie bowls and pasta salads. On the retail side, it has integrated natural food products onto the shelves and highlighted gluten-free, natural and healthful items with color-coded signage.

Fueling Frustration

Unlikein previous CSP Outlook Surveys, in which the percentage of retailers seeing higher, lower or the same margins roughly broke out into equal thirds, fewer participants of the 2012 survey—or less than 16%—saw higher margins this year. About 40% saw margins stay the same, while more than 38% made less money. The main issue: The large price spike this summer blunted the relatively profitable first half of the year.

Mickey Jamal, president and CEO of Chestnut Petroleum Distributors Inc., New Paltz, N.Y., says gasoline volume was down 3% to 10% over last year, but merchandise sales were up thanks largely to an acquisition. He finds it very difficult to guess about 2013 conditions because of gasoline’s volatility.

Scheeler of Bobby & Steve’s Auto World reports that fuel margins and sales were “pretty good” in the upper Midwest for the first half of the year, but stiff price increases in July put the brakes on the double-digit growth. This has had its effects inside the store as well. “The last three months have been a little more challenging, but we’re still up nonethe­less,” he says, citing a 5% increase in in-store sales.

In California, where the average price for a gallon of gas went through a record spike in October, retailers faced an incredible amount of margin pressure.

“Prices skyrocketed,” says Edward Marszal. “People started to think more about going to Costco or [value] brands like Arco. So we got hit with that.” But instead of trying to play the price game on fuel, the company has emphasized customer relation­ships, which determines “whether they will decide to fill up that day with you or Costco,” he says.

For example, one customer told Marszal that he visits the company’s Carmichael, Calif., Chevron site specifically because of one employee. Another drives his grandmother to that same location to fuel up even though she lives 20 minutes away, because she loves the employees.

“The base keeps us in business, and then when you have good times, or when the price of gas goes down, you’re able to make a little more margin than when they’re going up,” he says.

Fuel Attitudes

Nearly 90% of survey respondents say they plan no changes to their fuel offer in 2013, a higher percentage than in previous years. Among those who do expect change, the most popular options were upgrading fuel equipment, changing fuel brands and adding compressed natural gas (CNG). In fact, nearly 32% of retailers planning a change chose adding CNG, compared to only 7.4% in 2012, showing the nation’s natural-gas boom is catching on in the c-store industry.

Category Close-Ups

Nearly 40% of 2012 survey par­ticipants said they would keep their tobacco set the same, with nearly 33% planning to grow some product categories and shrink others. Electronic cigarettes was by far the most popular area to grow, selected by nearly 80% of retailers with plans to expand the tobacco set, followed by single cigars (43%) and moist smokeless (40.5%). Most popular to cut: premium and branded-discount cigarettes.

While Bobby & Steve’s Auto World is shrinking the size of its cigarette backbars, it is transitioning to more OTP. “Smokeless and cigars have been a big area of growth for us,” says Scheeler. The retailer has seen an increased inter­est in e-cigarettes, although it has not yet settled on a final offer for its stores.

Packages Beverages

More than 51% of CSP Outlook Survey respondents expect to keep their packaged-beverage offer the same in 2013, roughly similar to previ­ous years’ surveys. The most popular areas of growth among retailers are energy drinks, beer and enhanced/fla­vored water, while areas to trim were led by multipacks, soft drinks and enhanced/flavored water.

The St. Louis-area retailer has high expectations for new items from the major beverage manufacturers— Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group—to take the lead from energy drinks. “Energy is under assault. Frankly, I think it’s long over­due,” he says. “It will still be a strong, key category, but I think there will be shakeout.”


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