By Bruce Horovitz
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—NACS Chairman Jared Scheeler first spotted the future of the U.S. convenience store industry where he least expected to see it: China.
Scheeler was attending the NACS Convenience Summit Asia in Shanghai in 2019 and became increasingly fascinated observing how consumers there do just about everything via their mobile devices. He recalls strange looks from merchants whenever he used cash to make a purchase. Even more surprisingly, he says, he drew the same reaction when he’d pull out his credit card. Scheeler observed that most Chinese consumers don’t carry wallets because everything they need to make most transactions is on their mobile devices.
“Our society will gravitate in that same direction,” said Scheeler, 41, who is founder and CEO of The Hub Convenience Stores, a chain of five c-stores headquartered in Dickinson, North Dakota. “Our industry used to rely on real estate to define convenience. That’s becoming less important. Now we need to rely on mobile devices to take convenience to another level.”
As he settles in as chairman of the NACS Board of Directors, Scheeler is setting some sky-high goals for the c-store industry. With the pandemic as an unlikely tailwind, first and foremost, he says, is for c-stores of all sizes—including the smallest independent operators—to embrace digital on all levels.
“The bigger players can do this on their own and that leaves us smaller retailers behind, and we need to find a way to catch up,” said Scheeler. NACS, he says, can play a major role. “It’s super important that we think beyond brick and mortar and think of our stores as digital locations.”
Mobile ordering is a heavy lift for a small retailer. “The cost to do it may not seem realistic from an ROI standpoint, but there has to be a solution,” he said. Over time, it’s about getting everything connected within the same mobile app—from activating the gas pump, to the subscription services on his car washes, to integrating the loyalty program. “It’s about getting every service in a one-stop shop,” he said.
Consider the next year to be a shift in gears for the nation’s 150,000-plus c-stores. Moving forward, it’s less about reacting to the challenges of the pandemic and more about riding the digital wave, while navigating growing competition not just from within the c-store industry but from savvy competitors in the supermarket and QSR industries, as well. And central to this response, Scheeler says, will be the independent retailers (typically with just one or two stores) that account for more than 90,000 of U.S. c-stores.
“Small retailers are the hub for the community,” said Scheeler. “I’d like to see smaller retailers utilize NACS as the hub for growing their businesses.”
FRESH AND MODERN
One key way that Scheeler keeps his own small chain, The Hub, at the very top of consumer consideration in North Dakota is by consistently placing fresh, healthy food front and center in all five of his stores. “When you walk in the door, fresh food is the very first thing you see,” said Scheeler. That includes a refrigerated grab-and-go section near the entrance that features fresh, healthy sandwiches, salads, wraps, fruit cups and to-go veggie offerings.
Scheeler has marketed this concept of freshness and healthiness with The Hub Cafe. How about a hot breakfast sandwich served on a brioche bun? How about an assortment of flatbreads that include vegetarian options like Spinach Artichoke Veggie? And how about fresh soups (like Chicken Tortilla) and salads (like Summer Breeze Salad) that look as good as they taste? “This is the opposite of what c-stores were 20 years ago,” said Scheeler, hinting at the time when items like tobacco products and sugary sweets were among the first things shoppers saw when they walked in the front door. While these items are still critical, he said, “They don’t have to be the focus of what we define ourselves as.”
Remember, this isn’t some giant chain presenting an array of better-for-you offerings—it’s a five-store operation. “Small operators really have the power to accelerate industry growth,” said Scheeler. “In many ways, we may be the ones who are holding back the industry growth.” That, he says, will not only require better food offerings but also more appealing stores.
“It’s important that we have modern buildings and businesses that people are proud of walking into—and working for,” he said. “If I’m a younger worker, I don’t necessarily want to work for a place that looks like my grandfather’s gas station.”
That’s the first thing he looks for at a c-store: It has to pass the eye test. “You need a wow factor from the exterior to encourage people to come walk inside,” he said.
The very first step a small, independent operator who wants to improve the bottom line should take: Get engaged with NACS. It was Scheeler’s own engagement with NACS that began in 2001 when he attended his first NACS Show in Las Vegas. “That’s when I fell in love with the industry. I was blown away. It was sensory overload.” He started to attend educational sessions when he was director of retail operations at Bobby & Steve’s Auto World. (History note: Scheeler appeared on the cover of NACS Magazine for the October 2005 issue on service culture.)
Scheeler started to regularly attend the NACS Show and the NACS State of the Industry Summit. “It’s not just the learnings, but the connections I made on the retailer side and the supplier side that have helped me to think bigger picture,” he said. “Just being able to have a conversation with a guy like Joe Sheetz, for example, changes your perspective on what you can do and provides inspiration on what your business can be.”
In 2010, Scheeler attended his first NACS Day on the Hill in Washington, D.C. “It opened my eyes to the role retailers have in impacting issues on Capitol Hill,” he said. The excitement of walking the halls of Congress for the first time and meeting with state delegations “helped me to understand what role we as individuals have in making our voice heard.”
He moved back home to rural North Dakota in 2015 to co-found The Hub, starting with a single location. The Hub’s name was intentionally chosen to reflect a community gathering spot, and that extends to local involvement in things like Little League sports teams and selling co-branded water for local high schools and area colleges.
For a small retailer like Scheeler, serving as NACS chairman wasn’t on his radar. Even then, he insists, “Any retailer can do what I’ve done.” Key, he says, is getting involved with NACS and pursuing those issues that most impact your business. In advocating for his business—and the c-store industry—Scheeler says the most effective form of advocacy has simply been “telling our stories” to those who are able to listen and effect change.
It’s a long way from his very first job as a teenager at a grocery store in Dickinson. Even before that, he developed a special affection for the c-store industry as a little boy when his dad would pick him up from daycare and, for a special treat on the way home, stop at the local c-store, where he’d typically pick out his two favorite candies: a box of Hot Tamales and a Hershey candy bar. Now married with four children, Scheeler’s own kids can pick special treats from his The Hub locations.
Meanwhile, he continues to marvel at the success and growth of some of the industry’s first-class operators like Sheetz and Wawa, that combine beautiful locations, healthy food options and state-of-the-art technologies. “They are paving the way for what the industry needs to look like,” he said.
Still, they could probably learn a thing or two from The Hub. “We are the hub for the community,” he said. It’s where folks like to gather to socialize, snack and feel a part of the community fabric.
By the time the 2022 NACS Show opens in Las Vegas, which will mark the end of his term as board chairman, Scheeler says if he’s found a way to inspire even a handful of small c-store operators to take their stores to the next level, he’ll consider that a big success.
“Store-by-store, we all play a role in improving our industry’s image,” he said. “We have work to do.”
This article appears in the January 2022 issue of NACS Magazine. Read the magazine now before it hits your inbox or mailbox.
Bruce Horovitz is a freelance journalist and national media consultant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.