Five Ideas that Stood Out from Store Visits

Frank Beard ruminates on some of the unique and innovative ideas of 2017.
January 12, 2018

By Frank Beard

One only needs to read an issue of NACS Magazine, a few NACS Daily articles, or get out and visit some stores to see that convenience retailing is full of unique and innovative ideas. As I look back on 2017, here are five ideas that really caught my attention.

1. Artisan Pizza. From single-store independents to large chains, many of today’s convenience retailers take foodservice to a new level. Some are even raising the bar for pizza.

North of Boston, inside a Prime Energy station in Wakefield, Mass., Slice Pizza & More has earned a well-deserved reputation for its pizza. The crust is tossed by hand, the sauce made from scratch, and the toppings include unique combinations such as my favorite, Broccoli Rabe and White Bean. Although Slice was founded elsewhere, the owner decided to relocate in a gas station owned by a member of his family. Competitive fuel prices meant high foot traffic, and both business now complement each other.

Another pizza destination exists south of Boston in the Cape Cod area. The owner of WildFire Brick Oven Pizza moved an imported Italian brick oven into a Shell station in Mashpee, and she utilizes training from New York City’s Goodfellas Pizza School to prepare everything from fresh bread to homemade pizza and sub sandwiches. I recently enjoyed the Figawi, which included mozzarella, fig jam, arugula, prosciutto, balsamic glaze, ricotta, and olive oil.

2. Helping Those Who Need Assistance. Refueling is a simple task for most of us, but what about individuals with disabilities? After noticing FuelCall systems at both at my local HyVee Gas and a BP station in Tallahassee, Fla., I decided to learn more.

The typical procedure at self-serve stations, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is to inform customers that they can honk or otherwise signal an employee for assistance. But getting noticed at larger stations may be difficult, and honking may be awkward and uncomfortable—especially if other customers are nearby.

That’s why FuelCall is brilliant. Roll up to the pump, lower the window, and press a button. That’s it. Employees inside the store will hear a sound and come out to assist.

Besides being a genuinely nice thing to do, I suspect this sort of system is good for business. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 40 million Americans have disabilities.

3. Upscale Seating. Many convenience stores offer some form of indoor or outdoor seating to compliment their foodservice, but Kum & Go has gone above and beyond with its new marketplace stores. The ambiance and quality rivals many coffee shops and fast-casual restaurants. The seating area boasts polished concrete floors, modern decor, quartz countertops and large windows that flood the building with natural light. It’s the sort of place you feel comfortable having lunch and staying to work on your laptop—especially since charging ports are plentiful. Outside, space heaters are built into the underside of a roof that extends over the patio.

4. Local Products. Despite only 800 square feet of retail space, 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis has set itself apart from the competition by offering a range of locally-produced products. Customers can purchase freshly-brewed Peace Coffee, snack bars from companies like Canteen Girl, and other local favorites like cans of cold brew from Big Watt Beverage Co. Each time I’ve visited, new products have been introduced.

As I’ve written previously, differentiation is crucial since convenience retailing faces challenges from new, potentially-disruptive technologies and services. This is one way to stand out.

5. Competitive Pay as a Marketing Tool. It’s no secret that the convenience retailing industry has many great employers who offer generous pay and benefits. QuikTrip and Sheetz, for example, are both a regular presence on Fortune’s list of top companies to work for.

Although posting this information on the front doors helps generate applications, it can also stand out as a quality signal to customers. I recently visited a Buc-ee’s location in Baytown, Texas, and noticed a large sign in front of the door advertising the “Buc-ee’s Minimum Wage.” All wages were far above the minimum, and there was a mention of three weeks of paid time off. “Use it, cash it, roll it,” said the sign.

As a consumer, that set a positive tone for the rest of my experience. And with millennials favoring corporate social responsibility, it may be a smart move.

Frank Beard is a regular NACS Daily contributor who has traveled to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states. He raised awareness of the industry's healthful food options with his "30 Days of Gas Station Food" experiment, and he's an analyst/evangelist for convenience store and retail trends at GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter here.