What do you do when you need a cup of coffee, a sandwich, a gallon of milk and a bag of dog food? You could stop by a coffee shop, a deli, a grocery store and a pet store. Or, you could just pop into your local convenience store (c-store). Many Americans depend on convenience stores every day to meet their needs. In 2016, a total of consumers spent $233 billion inside U.S. convenience stores.
There are well over 150,000 convenience stores in the U.S. today, and just over 57,000 of those stores are operated by the top 100 convenience store companies. That means the vast majority of convenience stores are not widespread chains but smaller regional chains or independently-owned stores. In fact, 63 percent of convenience stores are one-store operations. These stores may be “the little guys” compared to the big chains, but by no means does that mean they can’t succeed.
So, how do small convenience stores succeed? If you own an independent convenience store, then this post is for you. We’re going to look at a few significant ways your business can distinguish itself and attract more customers, even when there’s a chain c-store or even a grocery or big-box store across the street. You can differentiate your store by being exceptional with your store’s cleanliness, your product offerings, your community engagement and your customer service.
Keeping your convenience store clean may seem like more of an obvious practice than an insightful tip. However, the reality is that hygiene is an area where convenience stores tend to fall short. Research from 2013 found convenience stores performed worse than any other retail channel when it came to consumers’ fundamental need for a clean, safe environment. Though this research is a few years old, the issue of cleanliness continues to be at the forefront of discussions surrounding convenience stores.
A 2018 article from Convenience Store News discusses the importance of a clean environment for maintaining and growing business. The author cites an example of a convenience store that was taken over by new owners who made cleanliness a top priority. After their first year as owners, sales were up 25 percent from previous years.
If many convenience stores are failing to maintain a pristine environment, then your store can stand out simply by prioritizing cleaning on a regular basis. Customers will notice the higher standards of cleanliness in your store compared to others they’ve visited and will be more likely to choose you over the other guys.
Other convenience stores aren’t your only competition, of course. Big box stores and grocery stores also threaten the business of small convenience stores. When it comes to competing against these stores, the same principle applies. These larger stores may have more trouble keeping everything clean and organized since there’s a lot more ground for employees to cover. Take advantage of your smaller size to keep every square inch as clean as you can at all times.
It’s a good idea to have a cleaning checklist where employees can write down the time they completed various tasks. Here are some cleaning tasks to make sure you keep up with on a regular basis:
- Sweeping and mopping floors
- Cleaning bathrooms, including toilet, sink, mirror and floors
- Wiping down coffee bar
- Dusting surfaces like shelves and window sills
- Organizing and wiping down sales counter
- Cleaning light fixtures
- Washing display refrigerator doors
- Disinfecting anything customers touch
By keeping your store clean, you let customers know that they are in an organized and hygienic environment, and you communicate an attention to detail and standard of quality that will enhance customers’ perception of your business overall. The old saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” applies here. People tend to associate cleanliness with a whole host of other positive qualities, so an immaculate store can speak volumes to customers who come in.
Though you’re limited in size and can’t possibly carry the variety of products that customers find at big box stores or grocery stores, that doesn’t mean your product offerings have to be a disadvantage. On the contrary, the products you carry can help distinguish you from other stores in a positive way. The larger stores have quantity covered, so why not focus on quality?
This doesn’t mean high-end luxury items, just that you want to make sure you carry your customers’ favorite items. If they can get the items they want in a more convenient location, then that’s a win for them and you.
Generally, the items that are at the top of customers’ lists include staple food items, candy, drinks, pet food and over-the-counter medicines. You want to ensure you have a good selection of these c-store staples to meet your customers’ needs and expectations, but don’t just stop at checking off these items. Pay attention to your inventory records to see what sells and what doesn’t so you aren’t wasting shelf space on products your local shoppers don’t want or need.
You should also use your small size to your advantage by asking your customers what they want to see on your shelves. Unlike the bigger stores, you don’t need to undertake expensive market research to do this. Instead, all you need to do is include a comment box asking customers what items they would like to see in your store that you don’t currently carry. Or, just ask customers when they’re checking out. This gesture is sure to communicate to customers that you care about taking care of their needs.
It may be that customers want to see a different brand on your shelves. For some items, customers may not care about the brand, but for others, they are likely to have a preferred brand. For example, customers tend to have a preference when it comes to the snacks they buy. They may purchase another brand in a pinch, but why not carry the brand most of your customers prefer?
Another thing to consider to distinguish your product offerings is carrying locally-produced items, such as jarred pickles, honey or spaghetti sauce. With the demand for local food products rising, this is a forward-thinking strategy. Again, you can start by asking customers which local items they would like you to carry. Carrying local items isn’t just about meeting a practical need — it also demonstrates to customers that you care about the local community. After all, you’re a part of it.
Being community-minded is an excellent way to distinguish yourself from larger chains. Giving back to your local community shows customers that you’re not just out to make a profit — you’re a valuable member of the community who truly cares. There are several ways you can engage with your community.
One way is to give financially. Some local establishments do this is by sponsoring a local sports team or event. When you sponsor a local team or event, you can expect to see your store’s name on jerseys or signs, which is a great marketing opportunity. Just seeing your name on the back of a little league player tells locals right away that your store is a pillar of the community.
Another way you can give is by donating excess food to a local food pantry or soup kitchen. The food you donate should still be safe for consumption, but may not be as fresh as you’d like for selling. Or, perhaps it’s fresh, but you just made too many sandwiches or hot dogs that day. According to the EPA, many local food banks are willing to pick up food donations at no cost to you.
You can also allow charities or nonprofit organizations to host fundraiser events or ongoing fundraising initiatives at your store. Here are a few examples of things you could let a charitable organization to do at your location:
- Install a donation drop-off bin in your parking lot
- Host a car wash fundraiser
- Sell cookies or candy bars as a fundraiser
- Collect donations for families in need during the holidays
While chain stores can also engage with the communities they’re located in, the key difference is that they’re in many communities. Your independent convenience store is situated in one particular community, so you can take advantage of that smaller scope of influence to invest fully in your community.
Community engagement is something that marks the convenience store industry. A survey by the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) found that 64 percent of convenience stores support at least five charities in their communities. While this is a high number, that means about a third of convenience stores aren’t giving back quite so much. Make sure your convenience store is one the community sees as an asset to your town.
No matter what industry you work in, customer service is essential. Customer service may not seem as important in a convenience store where many customers are in and out quickly, but it’s vital for the success of your c-store. Customer service is about more than just taking care of customers’ practical needs — it’s also about establishing a personal connection with your customers.
Compared to independent convenience stores, larger convenience store chains, big box stores and grocery stores typically have more frequent turnover of staffing. That can make it difficult for these stores to maintain a personal connection between staff and customers. This is where your store has an advantage.
When employees truly know the customers they serve, they know how best to be hospitable and meet their needs. When customers have experienced the excellent shopping process of a larger chain store, they are sure to notice the difference when you greet them by name, know right away what they’re probably there to purchase and sincerely thank them for their business. This kind of service builds customer loyalty and is one of the significant ways smaller, independent establishments can compete with larger establishments.
To provide great customer service, remember the acronym GUEST, which stands for:
- Eye contact
- Speed of service
- Thank you
While many of these elements have to do with simply being personable, speed of service is another important way you let customers know you care. In this case, you care about their need to quickly check out and be on their way. One of the ways you can meet this need is through having a knowledgeable staff who is familiar with prices and how to operate the cash register and any other devices used to check out customers.
To equip your employees to check out customers efficiently, consider investing in a good point-of-sale (POS) system. A good POS system is designed to facilitate the transaction that takes place at your checkout counter. When your POS system is designed to make the checkout process quick and easy, customers will remember that they can count on your store to provide them with an efficient shopping process in addition to offering them a personable experience.
Stand out With the NRS POS+
To get the most out of your POS system, choose the POS+ from National Retail Solutions (NRS). Our POS+ system is an all-in-one system that includes everything you need to provide customers with an easy and efficient checkout process, including a cash register, register terminal touch-screen, customer-facing display screen, barcode scanner, card reader and receipt printer. This combination of high-quality hardware and advanced software makes the POS+ the perfectly integrated system you need.
The software our POS system comes with includes a suite of store management tools that go beyond just individual checkout tasks. For example, you can use your POS+ to keep track of inventory and easily see what needs to be reordered when. That way you’ll never risk upsetting a customer who stops in for an item that is out of stock. As we find ways to improve the software, we will automatically update your system so you can enjoy the benefits of our ongoing innovations.
Another huge benefit of our system is that it’s designed to be compatible with our nationwide customer rewards program, BR Club. Through this program, you can encourage customer loyalty. You don’t have to struggle with manual methods of keeping track, like punch cards. Instead, your customers will be impressed by a smooth, high-tech system that’s accurate and easy to use.
We don’t charge extra for any of the valuable features we’ve mentioned. It’s all part of the unmatched support and service you can expect from NRS. Our customer base is made up of small business owners like you. We want to help your independent convenience store succeed by equipping you to compete with the big guys. If you’re interested in purchasing a POS system, learn more about the POS+ all-in-one system from NRS, and contact us today for a free quote.