ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Wawa took on some large projects over the past couple of years, from installing solar panels at more than 90 sites to doubling down on Tesla electric-vehicle (EV) Superchargers to building a drive-thru-only store.
When it comes to innovation, it’s important to look at the short-term as well as long, said Chris Gheysens, president and CEO of the 900-store convenience chain. He spends the bulk of his time looking at the next six to 24 months because, as 2020 and the coronavirus spread has shown the world, it’s hard to predict the future.
“No one could’ve predicted this pandemic and the shifts in behavior that have come from it,” Gheysens said.
Gheysens explained Wawa’s strategy behind these experiments at the NACS Crack the Code virtual event ...
Customers won’t find liquid fuel at Wawa’s convenience store in Vienna, Va., where the company only has Tesla Superchargers in the parking lot.
The decision was more real estate innovation than anything else, Gheysens said.
“When you look at the frothiness of that real estate market, we simply can’t build the old model of, ‘It takes a few years to go through development,’” Gheysens said. “Nobody in that real estate market is interested in that. We wanted to actually switch our model, which to some may seem easy. For us, it was a big innovation.”
Instead of building a new store from the ground up, Wawa used an existing building to fast-track the process.
Tesla chargers also made sense in the dense market, where EVs are prevalent, he said. And entering a new market gives Wawa the opportunity to continue to grow in that part of the state.
“It gets us into the market,” Gheysens said. “And when it gets you into the market, what it then can do is allow other stores—maybe even some with liquid fuel—to come along and create some critical mass in that market.”
Electric chargers won’t replace gas at every store, he said, but having charging sites allows the company to better understand those customers and where the market is going.
Wawa added its first charging station in 2017. Its goal is to have 40 electric charging stations by the end of 2020. In September, the chain celebrated its 500,000th EV charging customer.
Wawa tinkered with solar power for years, Gheysens said, born out of the company’s sustainability efforts.
The chain has struggled finding partners for its energy-demanding stores. The technology in solar has also rapidly progressed. Putting solar panels on a store’s canopies a few years ago wouldn’t have been worth it, but now, they are able to generate more power, he said.
Wawa plans to add solar panels to more than 90 sites in New Jersey to start.
“For us it’s as much of a business case now as it is a way to really do the right thing for our environment, for our customers,” Gheysens said.
For years, the chain has asked customers “does this matter to you?” when it comes to solar panels. Recently Wawa is seeing more and more, especially for younger customers, that it matters.
It remains to be seen if solar panels will be pursued aggressively in other states, he said.
The third experiment Gheysens said the company is focusing on is in its drive-thru-only and curbside-pickup-only stores. While these models have been talked about for years, COVID-19 accelerated it, he said.
An 1,850-square-foot c-store in Falls Township, Pa., set to open in December, is solely focused on drive-thru and curbside pickup. Another drive-thru will be attached to a typical store in southern New Jersey.
Figuring out how to take a large, customized order, usually made on a touch screen, and simplifying that for a drive-thru was a challenge, Gheysens said. Another barrier was figuring out how to make the experience quick and efficient, like quick-service-restaurants do.
Gheysens said Wawa trusted in its team and let them experiment after giving them some high-level direction. They built a model in Wawa’s innovation center, tested it and now are close to opening—all within about nine months, a fifth of the time that it takes to open a normal store, he said.
"We will fail, we will learn and then we will revise, because there’s something long-term here we really think has legs," Gheysens said.