Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes has no fear of going out on a limb. In the face of dwindling cigarette salesthe chain has seen its carton sales cut in half over the past five years due to intense competition and painfully high excise taxesthe Canastota, NY-based chain dove headfirst into foodservice in 1999 as a means of ensuring its future.
The company began with one subbrand that evolved into another then another, until its stores were a sea of offers with no clear direction. President John MacDougall and Executive Vice President/Chief Financial Officer Fran Duskiewicz knew that even though they had great programs, the programs lacked cohesion. So they hired a "food Ph.D.," Dr. Jack Cushman, as vice president of foodservice. Cushman pulled the entire offer under the Mama Mia’s Classic Pizza umbrella and fine-tuned the offerings. As a result, the company has watched food sales skyrocket to more than $20,000 a week in some stores.
At about the same time, the company was looking to revamp its overall store image. Standing at the threshold of a new millennium, the chain wanted to showcase its new and improved foodservice offer, but it also wanted to update the logo and image that customers have embraced for 20 years.
Nice N Easy went off on its own and tried its hand at design. The company made a bold move by tearing down and rebuilding its most profitable store. When the dust settled, the chain realized it had fallen just short of what it had intended to accomplish. Again, the company sought outside help to bring its true vision to life. At the close of what has been a five-year process, Nice N Easy readies to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a decidedly different "face" to its customers.
A helping hand
The decision to tear down and rebuild its most profitable storean interstate location in Tully, NY, that had the highest gas volumes and merchandise sales in the 82-store chainwas driven by a commitment to customers. But good intentions weren’t enough to execute the project as planned.
"Tully has always been our No. 1 store," says MacDougall. "It was a big deal when we went to tear it down and redesign it. [The store] was doing really well before we tore it down, but we felt we were under-serving our customers. When we finished with the store, a colleague came in and pointed out that it was a beautiful store, but it didn’t look as if it was completethere’s a lot of good foodservice stuff in there, but there’s nothing really tying it all together. Honestly, we had to agree."
The Tully store had the makings of an improved image; the design set off the coolers, the coffee bar (which is on the opposite side of the store) and the foodservice offer with different colors, and wood treatments gave the store a more "polished" look. But the colleague was right: The store simply fell short of MacDougall’s grand vision.
The experience left Nice N Easy at a creative loss. In the company’s search for the "wow" factor, it sought additional help from a professional design firm, Group Red. The outside assistance has made all the difference.
"We learned that we’re good at designing programs and nice-looking buildings out of quality materials, but we didn’t have that," says Duskiewicz. "Contractors will build nice, sturdy buildings, but they have finishers come in on all the final details. That’s what we needed. We were building beautiful stores, but we needed to bring a finisher in for all those little touches that would make someone go ‘Oooh, this is nice.’ Those little things mean a lot."
Group Red rode Nice N Easy’s stores to get a feel for what the chain was trying to accomplish. The company quickly turned ideas into visual images that could be discussed. Group Red kept Nice N Easy focused on the minutiae exactly what it was missinguntil the team settled on a finished look for the inside of the store. In the end, the chain had a brand new reworking of its logo and fonts, and an overall foodservice identity called the Easy Street Eatery, complete with its own logo. Ideas were completed just in time to be implemented in a new ground-up store in Manlius, NY, and Nice N Easy felt that if it liked how it looked, then it would work its way backwards through the company.
The Wegmans of c-stores
The Manlius store represented another-bold move on Nice N Easy’s part. The company typically focused its stores in rural, middle-income communities, and Manlius was located in a highincome area. If Nice N Easy was going to invest in a whole new look for its stores, it wanted to see if it could cater to a higher-income customer.
"We knew [Manlius] was an important store to do this in," says Duskiewicz. "We generally avoided high-income areaswe just never thought customers in those communities would be a good fit for us. But because it was new territory, it forced us to do a lot of research."
The only competition for Nice N Easy in Manlius was a Wegmans supermarket and a few stores in the village, located at a difficult S-turn where traffic often bottlenecks. Nice N Easy chose a more remote location to give residents a new route for their morning coffee.
In an effort to court the upscale Wegmans supermarket customers, the chain felt it necessary to see what they wanted in a Nice N Easy store. The company took a two-pronged approach to getting inside customers’ heads. First came an exchange of information with ACNielsen.
"Since we planned on serving Wegmans customers, we actually tried to make a c-store version, so when their customers shopped here they’d feel right at home," says Duskiewicz. "We sell our scan data to ACNielsen, so they made available to us Wegmans scan data along with Home Panel Data, which showed us where the Wegmans customer shopped when they weren’t shopping in Wegmans. Lo and behold, we found these higher-income shoppers were just as interested in bargains as everyone else was: They were shopping in dollar stores. We knew they were looking for deals, so we have a dollar section in this store. But they also like things to look upscale, so we tried to incorporate all of that into this location."
Then Nice N Easy went directly to the customer. It surveyed the community to see how the chain could customize the store to fit consumers’ needs. The survey consisted of 15 questions about services, products, food and car wash. About 2,500 mailers went out to the general community with the promise of a $10 gas gift certificate for those that responded. In the two-year period between when the mailers went out and when the store opened, 1,700 responses came back to Nice N Easy’s office. It was expensive, but MacDougall feels it made all the difference.
"The cost of the promotion was about $17,000," he says. "But it’s not unusual to spend anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000 for regular grand opening festivities. This promotion really got the store flying from day one, because they knew this store was made with them specifically in mind."
The end result
The differences between the Manlius store and the Tully store are striking. In the Manlius store, colorful, captivating graphics set off the different sections with color-coded signage, featuring detailed roadmaps of the area. And each section has a phrase like "satisfy your hunger" or "brighten your day" that the company labored over with its design partner, Group Red.
"[Group Red] prodded us until it was perfect," says Duskiewicz of the New York-based firm. "They made us focus on the exact message we wanted to put out there. Then they came back with 10 diffe
rent combinations with a repeating arc and theme. It’s a small detail, but then again, it’s those details that we needed the most help with."
The canopy of the Manlius store mirrors the peaked atrium at the front of the storethe brainchild of MacDougall and soon to be a trademark of Nice N Easy. The canopy and store also have shingled roofs, another upscale touch.
Aside from integrating a dollar store concept amid its grocery offer, Nice N Easy also plucked other gems from the Wegmans data and the community input. Nice N Easy has taken its fill-in grocery offer to the next level by offering full meal solutions for customers. From frozen meats like steaks, chicken, shrimp, beef patties and pork chops and sides to accompany it, to frozen pizzas and appetizers, the store provides meal solutions for families at affordable prices.
"In many communities, our stores are the only place for folks to shop," says MacDougall. "We want to give them everything they would need to make a meal for their family. And we’re competitively priced$3.69 per pound for turkey breast, and $4.99 per pound for beef strip steaks."
For the past several years, Nice N Easy has also begun concentrating on fresh produce. It recently added Produce Manager Samuel A. Magari, Jr. to its foodservice team. He will oversee the fresh produce program now being offered in several Nice N Easy locations.
Open beverage cases with juice and single-serve water are another recent addition to both Tully and Manlius, and will be part of the chain’s plans going forward. According to MacDougall, sales greatly improved when they opened the cases up for easier customer access open-faced coolers filled with low-carb products resulted in at least a 15% lift in sales. Waist-high cases for ice cream and frozen foods run through the store, too.
Manlius is also the first store to offer customers Wi-Fi access in its seating area. MacDougall feels it was absolutely necessary for customersand well worth the cost he describes as "not that expensive." The chain hopes to have six more Wi-Fi-equipped stores in 2005.
The price of success
Nice N Easy spent $1.25 million to tear down and rebuild the Tully store. It will cost an additional $5,000 to give it the finishing touches that are so prominent at the Manlius store, but even now the store has exceeded the company’s expectations. The store opened back up for business in December 2003. So far, it is producing foodservice sales that exceed most other store’s total inside sales, and it has maintained its gas volumes thanks to tourist traffic.
"Tully was a huge risk because for years Tully had been our busiest and most profitable store," says Duskiewicz. "And to tear down your busiest and most profitable store can be a scary thing. But we did it and opened up right in time for our new fiscal yearbeginning of December last year. And essentially it hasn’t been a problem. Our payroll and sales both went up dramatically, but the difference between the increase of those two more than made up for the increased cost of the building. So we essentially held our profit, which is remarkable.
"Tully and Manlius were both completed-[in 2004], and that’s two huge projectsfor us to get done in a year," Duskiewicz adds. "And to take this critical image leap from one store to the next was a ton of work. But we previewed this new image to our 50 franchisees and they’re all real excited about it. So now we’re setting up a retrofit schedule to see how we can take the look and get it in place in as many stores as we can."
Nice N Easy’s next generation
The Manlius store isn’t just Nice N Easy’s first attempt at servicing a highincome community; it’s also going to be the chain’s first venture in real estate development. For $1.2 million, Nice N Easy President John MacDougall purchased the eight acres the store sits on, with the intention of creating a small retail site on the property as well. To date, a bank is connected to the store’s parking lot by a small access drive. For the future, the chain has a 16,000 sq. ft. space to the side and behind the store pegged for use by other retail tenants. Several companies are interested, one being a drug store that understands there are certain rules to follow.
"There are a number of companies that are interested in getting on our lot," says Fran Duskiewicz, Nice N Easy’s executive vice president/CFO. "There’s a local flower shop that is slated to go in the retail site, as well as a candy shop. The site right next door to us is the other big retail site. We’ve gotten unsolicited calls from drug store chains to get on that site, and we said ‘sure’ as long as they’re willing to accept our deed restrictions. And if you get a well-known drug store next to you that’s not competing on some key items, you’ll get a lot of traffic."
Because Nice N Easy can’t sell liquor or wine in its stores, the chain is also in talks with a liquor store, which could end up being the first Nice N Easy Liquors.
"The fact that we opened up and have been hugely successful since day one has made this whole site more valuable to anyone who wants to get out there," says Duskiewicz. "It’s really paid off for [MacDougall]. It was a big investment for the land, but it’s going to work out with the success of the store and the development of retail."
The property that will one day house the retail site is owned by Little John LLC. MacDougall sees it as "a little project" for his family; whatever earnings the retail site garners will go into an account bearing the names of his grandkids.
Glass and Brass
Nice N Easy delved into foodservice to make up for shrinking cigarette profits.-Beginning with a pizza program that went by the name Mama Mia’s, Nice N Easy then moved onto a breakfast program called Egg On The Go, then On The Go sandwich/sub program, then PJ Dogger Hot Dogs and finally Grand Choice Caf for coffee and bakery. Before long, the chain realized it was inundating customers with too many brand messages. In order to get foodservice under control, the chain followed Sheetz’s example and hired itself a foodservice "guru" in Jack Cushman.
Cushman had his work cut out for him. While the existing programs under the Mama Mia’s Classic Pizza umbrella all showed promise, they lacked a certain "sameness," which made them a real challenge to promote.
"When I started five years ago, we didn’t want to invent new programs," says Cushman. "These were good, profitable programs that customers responded to. Our stores were simply cluttered with messages along with the typical c-store fare of chips and beer. We wanted to get all the brands corralled under one name so our customers could identify with the programs as a whole.
"So we worked to place the brands under the name Easy Street Eatery," he continues. "The menu hasn’t really changed, but the props have. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to just change the name, but when you look at the sales, you see that image and name actually play a big role."
Whenever Nice N Easy adds foodservice to a store, its goal is to have the category represent 25% to 30% of sales. As soon as the changes were made to the Manlius store, it saw foodservice sales jump as high as 36% of in-store sales. The store has exceeded the chain’s pre-construction estimates of $10,000 a week in food sales.
Manlius is the first store to feature the completely redesigned foodservice offer. One of the main design elements that gave Easy Street its edge was what Cushman calls "glass and brass." The food preparation area is separated fro
But not every store will bear the Easy Street Eatery brand. The brand is reserved for stores that offer a full-blown foodservice offer, meaning it has to carry all Nice N Easy sub-brands. Most importantly, stores need to offer made-to-order sandwiches.
As Nice N Easy proceeds with its retrofit schedule, Cushman would like to see at least a dozen of the chain’s 82 stores fitted with the Easy Street label. Group Red has offered an alternate plan so that the new look can be used in older stores, rather than having to knock them down and rebuild. And with each new build he hopes to improve on the operational flow.
And while Cushman is the "commander" of the foodservice offer, Nice N Easy has recruited strong "foot soldiers" in each store. Each time the chain puts foodservice programs into a store, it goes out and hires restaurant managers.
"They know how to run foodservice because they’ve managed restaurants in the past," says Fran Duskiewicz, executive vice president/CFO. "So [Cushman] and the people who work for him at least can speak the same language."