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One Singular Sensation

By Pat Pape

Kwik Trip of La Crosse, Wisconsin, is famous for selling fresh bananas at 39 cents a pound. But when the program was first rolled out several years ago, "many of our own store leaders thought, 'Are you serious?" recalled John McHugh, director of corporate communications. "Today, ask anyone in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa who has the best bananas at the best price. They will universally say Kwik Trip."

Bananas — fresh and value priced — have become a signature item for the 350-convenience store chain. In fact, they are so important to the product mix that Kwik Trip has installed a banana-ripening facility at the company's distribution center.

What Makes You Famous
Signature items are "Products that consumers know you for," said David Bishop, managing partner at Barrington, Illinois-based Balvor LLC, a retailing consultancy. "They are associated with the brand, such as Burger King and The Whopper."

While national chains are more likely to engage research and development firms to help create signature items, most retailers "leverage existing products and customize them to a degree," Bishop said, pointing to Parker's Markets of Savannah, Georgia, which uniquely positions its fountain program.

"We're best known for our 79-cent fountain drink," said Greg Parker, president of Parker's Markets. "It probably drives more sales than anything." Parker's uses filtered water to make both the fountain drink and the "chewy ice" that Southerners prefer, and fountainheads in each store are cleaned nightly. "The price and ice are big, but we also use the perfect cup, which is Styrofoam and doesn't sweat," said Parker. "Our stores sell so much product that our bag in the box is always fresh."

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Signature items are "unbelievably critical," said Jack Cushman, vice president of foodservice for Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes of Canastota, New York. "If you're going to be the same as everyone else, you might as well not get in the business."

Nice N Easy is known for its Egg on the Go, a breakfast sandwich made from a croissant and various types of sausage, egg and cheese. Occasionally, it features "the three pig groups" of ham, sausage and bacon, he added. "It's like a blank canvas. You can do a lot with it." While the grab-and-go sandwich wasn't developed specifically as a signature item, customers made it one.

"Sometimes you don't know what you've got until the customer responds," Cushman said.

At York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter's, three sandwiches continually draw customers to the counter: the cheesesteak, grilled cheese and Sloppy Joe. "We wanted to be known for fresh food and quality. That was a personal mantra," said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice. "As I started developing product, it was clear that some items took off. "We didn't put together the cheesesteak sandwich thinking 'this is what we're going to be known for,'" he said. "But it's great to have [a signature item]."

Recently, Rutter's rolled out the Walking Taco, which starts with a bag of crushed Doritos. "The bag is the car­rier," Weiner said. "Into the bag you scoop taco meat, shredded lettuce, cheese, jalapenos, black olives, sour cream and onions. You can eat it with a fork while you're walking."

The idea came from Tim Rutter, who heads the company's real estate division. "His children are very ac­tive in sports, and concession stands were selling this at sporting events," Weiner said.

The company experimented with recipes and then rolled out the product with a billboard advertising campaign. "It's turned out to be very popular," he said. "Now I'm looking at other options and sizes."

Although it's early, Weiner believes the Walking Taco could become an­other signature item. "By the nature of the bag, it's unique," he said. "Any­thing that makes you a destination in a consumer's mind is a plus."

Trial and Error
Finding your signature item may re­quire time and testing, according to officials at Stripes, the Corpus Christi, Texas-based retailer with 500-plus convenience stores in Texas, Oklaho­ma and New Mexico. The chain's 99­cent taco went through numerous it­erations before becoming the product it is today, popular with both Hispanic consumers and anyone who loves fresh, authentic Mexican foods.

In 2001, Stripes introduced tacos that were prepared in a commissary, wrapped in foil and delivered to stores. "They were not hot, fresh and deli­cious," said David Wishard, vice presi­dent of business development.

Eventually, the company installed kitchens in many locations, displaying food cafeteria-style. "Now you walk in the front door and smell fresh food cooking," said Wishard. "It's not being made in a backroom or hidden away. You see it being made fresh."

"You eat with two senses — smell and sight — before you even taste it," said Ben Hoffmeyer, senior category man­ager for foodservice at Stripes. "Even the tortillas are made from scratch. That's our secret sauce."

From the humble taco, the retailer developed its proprietary Laredo Taco Co. (LTC) foodservice brand. The suc­cessful concept was applied to the Town & Country Food Stores in West Texas after Stripes acquired the chain in 2007. The company successfully blended the Hispanic food offerings from South Texas to expand the LTC menu with favorites such as chicken and biscuits, corn dogs and fried giz­zards.

Today, LTC is so popular that it only goes into the stores with enough park­ing places to handle the traffic. "The concept doesn't work for locations with a small footprint," said Hoffmeyer.

Find Your Sign
Any retailer can offer customers some­thing special and become well known for it, said Bishop. "First, understand your shoppers and know what they are looking for or what they value."

He advises retailers to consider products that may not be obvious con­venience store fare. "It's helpful to meet with a wide range of suppliers to see what is available," he said. "Look at things and ask 'How can I leverage something like that?' The point is that you don't have to create the item from scratch."

Single-store operators have certain advantages over large chains because of their size and ability to respond to specific needs. "They can feature lo­cally grown produce or freshly baked pastries from a local baker," Bishop said. "That may allow them to offer regional-specific taste preferences, whereas large chains may not be able to respond as effectively to that opportunity."

In addition, retailers can customize existing products in the form of brand­ing, he noted, referring to Wawa stores in Pennsylvania. According to the company's website, Wawa is the single largest purveyor of freshly made and built-to-order sandwiches and hoa­gies in the Delaware Valley. Since the 1970s, the c-store chain has sold more than 54 million built-to-order hoa­gies, and was instrumental in having the hoagie named the Official Sand­wich of Philadelphia in 1992.

"Wawa is known for hoagies," Bishop said. "They didn't create the hoagie and that's not the only place you can get a hoagie, but one of the strong associations consumers have with Wawa is the hoagie. Wawa has the annual Hoagiefest and celebrates that item in a way that reinforces its uniqueness."

Promotion Is Key
Even after a product is successful, custom­ers must be reminded of its availability.

Parker's Markets advertises its fountain drinks on billboards, bus wraps and through television spots. Nice N Easy regularly promotes its Egg on the Go with special offers, such as two for a lower price or in combina­tion with hot coffee.

Kwik Trip reminds customers about fresh bananas. "We do commercials and billboards even though we are well known for them," said McHugh. "A few years ago we had a guest dress up like a gorilla and try to steal the plastic ba­nanas that we used for display."

Beyond Store Shelves
"The signature item is something you're known for, but it doesn't have to be a product," Bishop said. QuikTrip, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, considers the store team itself as the signature product, ac­cording to Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs. "Any­body can duplicate a structure or prod­uct, but you can't duplicate our people. You can have a nice bright store, but if customers have a bad experience, they won't come back."

Out of every 100 QuikTrip applicants, only one is hired. "We are pa­tient," he said. "We wait until we have the right person, and we train them in the expectations of QuikTrip." Both employee salaries and benefits are significantly higher than the retail av­erage. There are ample opportunities for employee growth and advance­ment within the organization, and job openings are made available to exist­ing employees before they are adver­tised to the public.

"We're looking for people who can multitask and are very outgoing," said Thornbrugh. "You can't teach that. A person has it or they don't."

With experimentation and creativity, store operators can develop the right product or service to keep customers returning, Bishop said. "You must take off your merchant glasses and look through the lens of the consumer and find ways to create a different experi­ence. You want to create something that surprises and delights people so that they say 'when I think of you, I think of A, B and C.'"

Pat Pape is a writer and communica­tions consultant for retailing clients and trade associations as managing partner of Brookview Advisors Inc.