a fresh look

NOCO Express is steadily redesigning its upstate New York locations, while BP has converted a dozen South Florida stores to its popular am/pm brand.

What was once a two-bay, NOCO Express gas station tucked in the historic village of Williamstown, N.Y., is now nothing if not top of the line.

The fourth of NOCO Energy Corp.’s 33 stores to undergo a redesign in the last two years, the Williamsville location highlights the chain’s “store-within-a-store” concept, and includes a Nickel City Market Cafè as well as the popular Charlie the Butcher. It becomes the second NOCO Express to feature the new dual format, the first being in nearby Depew, N.Y.

“We want to expand our chain and create a better offering for the public,” said Henry Bays, NOCO’s general manager. “We realize that with compressions in gasoline margins and dwindling tobacco sales, we had to look for opportunities to draw customers and increase sales.”

The company seized the opportunity. The 5,300-squarefoot Williamsville store, whose colonial-style, red brickfaçade blends with the town’s Victorian feel, has seating for 40, with two 50-inch plasma television screens and wireless Internet access for customers. The 24-hour Nickel City Market Cafè—the first inside a NOCO Express—offers a selection of coffees, espresso and smoothies, as well as breakfast sandwiches, doughnuts and bagels, all of which are baked fresh onsite. The cafè also features a drivethrough.

The coffee offer is one that Bays believes will succeed. He even attended a barista school to learn how to properly make the hot (and sometimes cold) beverage, and hired a full-time barista.

“This will evolve, but you’ll see premium coffee with upscale espresso drinks, true espresso shots,” he said. “We’re making all of the various drinks that you can imagine, anywhere from cafè lattes to whatever. We’re doing it as well as Starbucks; I can promise you that.”

Nickel City isn’t intended to compete with Charlie the Butcher, a popular carving station that leases space in four NOCO stores, and located adjacent to the Williamsville store’s cafè.

“We’re not going against Charlie. We like him being our partner,” Bays said. “He’s really into the lunch and dinner element, while we’re taking a look at all dayparts.”

Other highlights of the newly redesigned store, which took four months to upgrade, include a walk-in beer cave and three additional 50-inch plasma televisions in the convenience store that run promotions and advertisements.

Outside is just as impressive. NOCO has upgraded from the previous two pumps to eight different fueling points, for a total of 16 pumps, including diesel. The units are the most modern available, Bays said, and are equipped with cash acceptors. The store also offers a full-service island for customers who’d rather not exit their vehicles—something that might prove popular during cold, upstate New York winters.

“By developing an upscale foodservice offering with a convenience store and a full-service gas station, we have hopefully resolved some of the time restraints people are under,” Bays said.

With the Williamsville store, thecompany purchased the landsurrounding the former location, butmight not have the capability todevelop such an expansive offer at some ofits other sites. Still, according to Bays,the chain is pursuing developmentopportunities, whether it be upgrading current stores or buying new land.

“NOCO is in a growth mode right now, and we’re looking all the time,” he said. “If we can find new dirt, we build on it.”

Heading South
NOCO Express isn’t the only chain shaking things up. Big names, such as BP, have made or are in the process of making major changes to its stores. BP announced in May, for example, that it’s piloting the popular am/pm brand— previously a West Coast-only concept —at 12 stores in South Florida.

“The reason we picked South Florida is because it was important for us to adapt to the needs of our consumers and our franchisees,” said Ben Amante, BP’s vice president of U.S. franchising. “We wanted to come out with an established consumer offering, and we thought South Florida was ready for this.”

The am/pm stores have operated west of the Rocky Mountains for 25 years, and now include 930 U.S. locations, in addition to more than 2,000 internationally. All told, there are about 14,000 BP-branded sites in the
U.S.

The South Florida am/pm stores will include Wild Bean Cafès, the British oil company’s popular-coffee program which also offers fresh-baked pastries, made-to-order sandwiches, soups and fresh salads. Locations also will sell a full range of Amoco fuels and will feature am/pm’s “To Go” area, which offers chilled, hot and baked foods, and a “Thirst Oasis,” which boasts up to 24 different fountain drinks.

Rebranding in Miami-Dade County does pose somewhat of marketing challenge, Amante, said, but the am/pm name, combined with BP’s business reputation, should make for a smooth transition.

“Most people that haven’t tried us are going to be surprised,” Amante said. “They’ll say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize you can get all this quality inside what used to be a gas station,’ and they’ll forget that a minute ago they were at the pumps fueling their car.”

The dozen rebranded stores will be significantly upgraded—everything from larger fountains to packagedgood gondolas to new flooring, as well as touch-screen menus for food orders and state-of-the-art warmers for to-go products. The stores represent the template for future am/pm’s on the East coast.

“A lot of thought went into the design and feel of the store. The atmosphere is very clean, the colors are very bright and it’s got sort of a modern, cool feel to it with a massive beverage center,” Amante said.

The locations, which already operate-under the BP banner, were expectedto be converted to am/pm in June, and to become franchise-operated during the third quarter of 2006.

Long-term plans to expand the am/pm brand even further will be decided following the completion of the South Florida pilot, but Amante said BP is seriously weighing opportunities. And am/pm is an attainable franchise for the everyday businessperson looking to enter the convenience retailing-industry, he added.

“We all know there’s McDonald’s and Marriott, but as a person looking to buy a business, those brands aren’t available to you in most cases, because you have to buy out an existing owner,” Amante said. “What we offer is an iconic brand. [Customers] will recognize BP over brand X.”

Not a New Trend
The redesigning and rebranding of stores is nothing new in the convenience industry. Many chains have done it, or are in the process of doing so.

Consider The Pantry, a Sanford, N.C.-based chain that started rebranding in late 2003 and now operates more than 1,400 units in 11 Southeastern states. The company three years ago opted to rebrand to the Kangaroo Express name, and is in the final stages of conversion.

Circle K took a similar path this past January, rebranding the gasoline it sold at 16 Tallahassee, Fla., stations, trading its longtime brand 76 brand for the independent Circle K brand. The change was made because most of the chain’s stores—340 in Florida and more than 2,200 nationwide—already were branded as Circle K gasoline.

Smaller chains get in on the act, too. Binghamton, N.Y.-based Manley’s Mig
hty Mart in earlier this year followed Fas Mart in Virginia and signed a 10-year deal with Valero Energy Corp. to rebrand half of its stores to Valero; they had been Exxon. The rebranding is expected to be completed this summer.

Meanwhile, chains such as Canastota, N.Y.-based Nice N Easy, which has 33 corporate-owned and about 50 franchised locations, have gone the redesign route.

In one case, Nice N Easy decided to cater to the Manlius, N.Y., community by developing an exterior look for the store that better fit the neighborhood. Folks there wanted an Adirondack feeling—stained wood with greens and soft browns —to blend with the locale. Since joining the neighborhood, Nice N Easy President John MacDougall said, other communities have come to the chain, asking them to open a store.

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