People don’t pay much attention to washroom signs. But at IrvingOil’s new Bluecanoe stores, the signs are tough to ignore.
Tim Guen, senior brand manager for the Portsmouth, NH-based retailer of 250stores, says even the smallest details—from the unique washroom signsand larger coffee brewers (see story, p. 58), to the rounded canopy and space-agegas pumps—have been tweaked for its new store concept to create tighterbonds with customers.
“Typical washrooms have universal stick figures indicating the men’sor women’s facilities,” he says. “We put a twist on them atBluecanoe. The stick figures on the door are sort of crossing their legs andhave a nervous buzz to them. And as you leave the washroom, there’s asign on the wall showing the stick figure jumping for joy. That’s oneexample of how we use humorous visual cues in this store to put a smile on ourcustomer’s face.’”
The washroom signs prove that Irving’s new store identity has an uncommonedge. Newly hatched Bluecanoe bursts with visual cues designed to get a chuckle—orin some cases, a full-throated guffaw—out of customers. More importantly,Irving Oil intends to create a unique experience with each customer visit; manyof the humorous in-store design elements can be swapped out regularly to keepthe experience new.
“When we set out to create this concept, we were thinking, ‘Isthis a place customers would want to come to time and time again?’”says Guen. “We want customers to walk out of the store feeling, ‘Iwas smart for coming here today.’ All around the store there is so muchpersonality. There are lots of reasons for customers to say there’s somethingdifferent going on here.”
Something different, indeed.
Bluecanoe’s ultimate “personality” took about two yearsto surface. In the first quarter of 2003, Irving Oil began conceptualizing thenext generation of its convenience stores, which at the time carried the company’slongstanding Mainway banner. It began piloting unique elements of the storein a handful of southern Maine locations in early 2004, refining the conceptwhere necessary. Early research showed that customers paid much closer attentionto certain details than Irving executives had expected.
“It was interesting to learn that female customers were much more attractedto the new look,” Guen says. “We went with a different combinationof warmer colors, moving away from the red and blue toward more pastels; thenew colors add energy to the site. Female customers also love what we’ve donewith the different contours of the sitea more elegant shape to the roadsign, a more rounded canopy, unique gas pumpsand improved lighting.”
Irving Oil “took off the training wheels” at three New Hampshire stores and two Maine stores in late April, and more Bluecanoes come on line each month. By year’s end, the company expects to have more than stores bearing the Bluecanoe imaging; all remaining stores in the U.S. and Atlantic Canada will switch over Bluecanoe in the next two years.
An inside look
Even from the road, customers can see that Bluecanoe is much different thanIrving’s convenience store of the past. New Gilbarco pumps at the fuel islandhave a sleeker, rounded-edge design for improved visibility. An updated, roundercanopy bearing the familiar Irving logo looms above the pumps.
The storefront blares a bright yellow and houses a Bluecanoe logo that suggestsshoppers are in for a surprise.
Inside, however, is where Bluecanoe’s most dramatic changes unfold. Just inside the door, an octagonal display case greets the customer. It’s stocked with fresh-made sandwiches and wraps, fruits and salads, desserts and other items, the majority of which Irving associates prepare on site.
The gondolas have a more polished look, too. High-visibility headers identify candy, snacks and other categories much more prominently. Tim Howell, Irving Oil’s category manager for candy and snacks, developed some additional merchandising stations, including a candy rack on casters featuring new, licensed and seasonal items. Overall, Bluecanoe stores shy away from an overabundance of pantry-loading grocery items in favor of immediate-consumption foods and beverages.
Robert Perkins, marketing manager for Irving, says the company continues to evolve along with its customers. Fresh fruit, bakery items and made-toorder sandwiches, as well as unique items like a protein salad lunch pack and low-carb choices, round out the chain’s growing foodservice offer.
There’s also a new cultural aspect to Bluecanoe. The company has always been service-oriented, driven by the slogan, “Where service means everything.”-But the slogan had been in effect for so long that company execs worried it ran the risk of losing its meaningof becoming “wallpaper,” according to Guen. Refurbished training programs help employees generate service experiences the chain expects will make customers “delighted and loyal.”
“You see some larger chains that are more centrally controlled in how theyserve customers,” Guen says. “We’ve made a deliberate attempt to push the decision-makingout to the store-level because we’ve found that’s a much more effective wayof treating and growing the customer base.”
Some examples of the individualization from store to store can be found at a newly “Bluecanoe-ized” store in Eliot, ME. The store manager there has added fresh-cut flowers, tissues and framed paintings to the washrooms. Chain-wide, stores strive to implement local themes and become part of the community.
Irving Oil worked in tandem with marketing communications firm Target Marketingto finalize Bluecanoe’s positioning and develop a campaign to promote it (seebox, p. 22). The new concept required a new approach, according to Terry Small,Irving Oil’s manager of marketing communications and advertising. The companywanted something that would stand apart from the crowd and give a nod to itscustomers’ deep-rooted appreciation for the outdoors.
“When you look at our industry you see a lot of marts and expresses and things like that,” says Small. “The more we zeroed in on Bluecanoe the more we liked it. It was so different than what you see elsewhere in the industryand it has attracted a lot of attention.”
Irving Oil Director of Convenience Retail Harry Hadiaris, who characterized the list of potential names for the new concept as “exhaustive,” says once the name Bluecanoe emerged, “it just made sense. Mainway was more of a traditional convenience store concept. But the definition and dynamics of the business were changing, so we had to change with them.”
Perhaps the most significant advancement has nothing to do with product mix, building design or traffic flow. The big difference comes with the continued development of Irving Oil’s people: store managers and associates. The company has made a significant investment in arming its people with the right toolsincluding a new point-of-sale system from Retalixand information they need to serve customers more effectively.
Hadiaris says the training process begins the first day a potential candidatedecides to seek employment with Irving Oil. Interviewing is done by store managers,and senior operations people participate whenever possible. This hands-on approach,combined with the company’s policy of empowering employees to make their owndecisions, may explain why Irving Oil’s turnover figures for store managersand associates fall well below the industry average.
“We take specific steps to hire the right attitude,” Hadiaris says. “We also have formal site-level training, but we don’t apply rigid timelines to the process; we make sure our associates have the information they need before we ever put them in front of a customer. If you spend enough time hiring, training and developing your people, and teach them what the customer wants, you will succeed.”
Once employees come face-to-face with the customer, they have tremendous flexibility to make decisions in how they fulfill the “Irving Promise.” That could mean anything from creating a new menu item to meet a customer’s special dietary needs, to ” spotting” a customer that might be short on gas money.
Taking the lead
“Retailers in our region are pretty much following eachother in price, product and varietyit’s a horse race with no one reallyseparating themselves,” says Guen. “In order to create real loyalty to IrvingOil and to Bluecanoe, we needed to make an emotional connection beyond priceor variety or more traditional elements of the marketing mix. Employees actas deliverers of this pleasurable, ‘want-tohaveit-again’ experience. This isa point of difference our competitors will find hard to match.”
Of course, Irving’s commitment to both customers and employees is not a new phenomenonbut it has been an evolution.
In January 2004, Irving Oil started conducting “a ton” of customer and employee research, guided by theories focusing on what makes great companies excel in service. “The Service Profit Chain,” a Harvard Business Review treatise stating that every great business model has to begin with fully engaged and empowered employees, helped the company better understand the three-pronged correlation between employee satisfaction and productivity, customer satisfaction and the financial results it had hoped to attain.
Through a subsequent seven-store pilot in which it put principles of the fledglingIrving Promise in place, the company saw a marked improvement in store performance.But, even more importantly, the company also noticed an internal attitudinalshift.
“We heard quotes from the pilot stores along the lines of, ‘Even if [ management]decides not to expand this program, this is the way we’re going to run our storeanyway,'” Guen recalls. “We created a sense of engagement for every employee,from first shift to third shift. We also reinforced the importance of communicationwith something called a lineup meeting; it’s nothing more than a daily 10-minutemeeting with every employee whereby key communication points are reinforcedwith our store teams.”
Topics covered during lineup meetings include training and news items, as well as more personal items such as birthdays and anniversaries, or a team member moving into a new apartmentinformation that makes employees feel like part of a family.
“We went from piloting the Irving Promise to rapid deployment,” says Guen.”It was six weeks from the time we decided to do it to the time it was rolledout to the first of our 230-plus company-operated sites; once we decide on something,we like to dedicate-resources to it and get it done.”
Irving then instituted an eight-week training program, in which every sitehad live coaching for every employee. In the first phase of the rollout, thecompany used a combination of thirdparty specialists and dozens of key employeesfrom its finance, public affairs, human resources and marketing departmentswho voluntarily took special assignments to complete the training. In the nextphases, the company trained employees almost exclusively with Irving coaches.A sustainability program introduced in September 2004 continually reinforcesthe promise in the minds of new and current team members.
Fulfilling the promise
Ben Bolen, an Irving Oil area manager for NewEngland who has served the company for more than 14 years, has seen the IrvingPromise take root. He remembers one situation that started out as a negativebut evolved into a positive thanks to the quick thinking of one enterprisingassociate.
“At our Wells store we had a group call in an order for a bunch of Italian subs and some other items for an eventit was probably a $1,000 order,” says Bolen. “Somewhere along the line there was a miscommunication, and another associate took the angry call when the order wasn’t delivered as promised. This associate was empowered enough to give the customer a 20% discount on the order, along with some complimentary items from the bakery, and called the corporate office for help to complete the order with some additional staff. The associate saved the account for us.
“The end result was a $700 order, and the customer was elated with us,” Bolencontinues. “That was the ultimate ‘wow.’ Short term and long term, it was awin. If you get people excited about what they’re doing, they’ll do a good jobfor you.”
Confident the company is moving in the right direction with the Bluecanoe retailoffer, Guen sees the chain’s biggest opportunity in establishing more intimateconnections between its two most important ” people sets”: customers and employees.
“We’ve taken our whole organization of 2,000 people through a skilldevelopmentprogram, where they learn how to create relationships that can build loyaltyamong our customer base,” says Guen, a veteran of the consumerpackaged goodsbusiness before joining Irving in 2001. “Bluecanoe is very much about physicalre-branding, but it’s also about making customers feel so comfortable with ourpeople that they want to come back.
Launching a Bluecanoe
DARK BLUE VANS CIRCLE Irving Oil stores in New England and AtlanticCanada on a routine basis these days. The vans’ sidewalls feature someof the most absurd brand logos ever to enter the convenience store space.Tuna N’ Slushies, Deli Lama and Bargain Badger, for example, representjust a few of the retail identities included in this “rejected names”ad campaign designed to drive traffic at Bluecanoe, the real name of IrvingOil’s distinct new retail brand.
“Mobile advertising is a non-traditional advertising vehicle to promotea nontraditional brand,” says Terry Small, Irving Oil’s advertising andpromotions guru. “In addition to the vans, we’re also doing in-store eventslike prize wheels, where every customer who spins the wheel receives aprize, ranging from a gift certificate to a ‘ rejected names’ T-shirt.The shirts have been a big hit; maybe we should be selling those shirtsin our stores.”
Additionally, Irving Oil is sending direct mailers to all homes withinthree to five miles of new Bluecanoe stores. Radio and print advertisementscomprise the balance of Irving’s external ad communications. Live radioremotes during grand openings help draw people to the stores to ingestthe Bluecanoe experience.
“We saw significant increases in traffic during the remotes,” says Small.”We’re also encouraging customers to come and sample our fresh pastriesand sandwiches. Customer intercepts we’re doing on site have yielded alot of positive feedback about our food and the brand itself.”
Small, who has served Irving Oil for more than 20 years, says the companybegan brainstorming its “marcomm” strategy in December 2004, but the messagewas continually tweaked leading up to the first Bluecanoe grand openingin April 2005. Irving Oil intends to use the same creative in both U.S.and Canadian markets but will monitor the campaign’s effectiveness everyweek to make sure the message remains on target.