Lessons From the Pandemic

Yesway, Circle K and Wallis discuss innovations and initiatives from the past year, and which ones will have lasting impact on a new kind of consumer. 

May 14, 2021

Speakers at the NACS Leadership Forum

By Erin Pressley

KANSAS CITY, MO—Gathering at the birthplace of NACS in Kansas City, a panel of retail leaders looked to the future to kick off this year’s NACS Leadership Forum—the first live and in-person event for NACS in 2021.

Derek Gaskins, CMO, Yesway; Kevin Lewis, CMO, Circle K/Alimentation Couche-Tard; and Tracey Hughes, executive vice president, Wallis Companies, shared their perspectives on the past 18 months and what’s coming up next for the c-store industry.

NACS CEO and President Henry Armour, moderator of the panel, set the stage by sharing that he looks at major disruptions—like the pandemic—as a chance to reset the table, and any time you reset, new opportunities emerge. It’s this focus on identifying new opportunities where the panel discussion continued.

Lewis of Circle K reiterated that starting with the consumer still remains critical. Digital transformation was happening before COVID-19, and the industry was making reasonable strides but then everything went “so much faster so quickly, and we had to begin to act like start-ups and e-commerce companies, which put pressure on our people and our stores. … We were forced to think differently about differentiation—our ability to tell our story and have differentiated offers is even more important now that online has become a great equalizer.”

Hughes shared that Wallis had to do things that were not perfect—they couldn’t take the time to get something just right before it went to market. “If we did normal, we’d be left behind,” she said. “So, we had multiple failures.” But learning from failure is critical, and Wallis is seeing uptick in both customer counts and sales. “We’ll always be a segment for face-to-face interaction, and we have to be on top of the basics (in-stock items and a clean store, for example) to provide a welcoming experience.”

Gaskins of Yesway shared what many in the audience have been thinking: “The definition of convenience is changing.” 2020 showed that people were now comfortable buying online even if they had not done it previously. Yesway also discovered some low-tech ideas Gaskins believes will stick, and critically, the retailer discovered how to better deploy people when certain roles become obsolete.

Yesway’s Hospitality Heroes program redeployed labor to be store greeters and cleaners of high-touch areas. He also shared that partnering with supplier partners was crucial to navigate disruptions and satisfy customers. “Our No. 1 ability is availability,” he stated. For example, Yesway had toilet paper, and that became a big traffic driver.

“Circle K now has 150 data scientists around the globe,” Lewis said to some subtle gasps from the audience. “We can quantify value versus convenience and can now put hard data behind it.” 

Gaskins said that he and colleagues felt an even stronger sense of purpose during the pandemic. Customers would say, “thank goodness your foodservice is still open; this is the first time I’ve had a hot meal in weeks that I have not had to cook myself.”  Many customers were simply saying, “Thank you for being there.”

When asked by Armour what eye-opening innovation across all retail was most noticed by panelists, Hughes shared that the pop-up phenomenon—brands going to where customers are—was most intriguing. “How can we bring our c-store brand to where people are?” she asked the crowd.

Lewis shared details about Ratatouille—not the Disney animated movie, but a crowdsourced TikTok musical production created in six months. No one who participated in the production’s creation ever met in person, and the rights to produce the event were granted only 24 hours before launch. The program aired for only 72 hours to 350,000 people, and reached essentially the same amount of people as a combined two years of sold-out Broadway shows. The diverse crowd of participants generated $2 million for the Actors Fund.

“What can we learn from this?” Lewis asked. These actions fundamentally redefined the theater industry. “How do we deliver on the consumer needs not only defined by our current capabilities but on the opportunities this whole new world provides?” he posed.

Gaskins touted QR codes. “What’s old is new again,” he said, and while this is the second time around for QR codes, “now they solve a problem, and QR codes have quickly become natural and normal.”

Armour asked if any of the companies represented changed the way they think around leading their teams and tackling labor issues, and Hughes said the pandemic experience was a nice reminder of what Wallis founder Bill Wallis used to say, “People want to work WITH someone, not FOR someone.” Embracing this sentiment, the company made sure that every leader from HQ was visible and out in the stores, “reinforcing we were one team.”

"I’m a changed man” said Gaskins of this past year. “To see our people risk their lives to go to work galvanized us, and it was powerful to witness.” But people are still the No. 1 challenge he added. With people opting out of the workforce or being scared to come to work, it’s become harder all around.  “We need sufficient people to make our business grow. I would hate to have to close a store’s second shift because can’t staff it.”

Lewis believes that “COVID has made it more important than ever that culture is a competitive differentiator for companies.”

When asked what they would change if they could go back and redo some of their actions in 2020, Hughes shared that Wallis did good to roll back their car wash subscriptions prices to keep customers close, but they overcommitted the time of the discount and had it last too long, leaving money on the table.

“I never want to go through this year again,” shared Lewis, but he also expressed that engagement scores among Circle K teams and profitability were terrific.  But many team members hit the doldrums and became overwhelmed—what’s now called COVID fatigue. “We lost our way for about 90 days—we moved slower and were more internally focused. I wish we knew earlier just how much our teams needed to talk about what they were going through.”

Gaskins also reiterated the good that came out of 2020 for Yesway but admitted he had some early missteps—one being that you can buy too much toilet paper, he laughingly shared.

Lewis left attendees with positive feedback on the industry’s future: “Our ability to deliver as an industry against customer core desires is fundamentally different than what big box and dollar can do. We are a store of the community in ways no one else is.”

For more about the invite-only Leadership Forum and this year’s agenda visit www.convenience.org/leadership.

Erin Pressley is NACS vice president, education and media.