Though a regional operator with 556 sites in five mid-Atlantic states, Wawa’s reputation as a top operator spreads from coast to coast. The stores are noted for their freshly prepared hoagies, coffee, competitively priced gas offering and friendly service. And the company is continuing to evolve. Over the next five years, Wawa plans to expand fuel operations from its current 200 stores to slightly more than half the chain, reveals President and CEO Howard Stoeckel.
Stoeckel is the first non-Wood family member to head the Wawa, Pa.-based chain. His fundamental belief that customer service is the most important aspect of running the business is palpable. He shared some of his core beliefs with Convenience Store Decisions.
CSD: How do you measure success?
If there is any onemeasure that we live with it is how many customers come to each store everyday.As a result, we look regularly at how many customers visited the store todayversus the same day last year. It might seem simple, but if you continue todo the right things, you will grow customer count. The years that we have increasedcustomer count significantly are the years that we have achieved great financialsuccess.
CSD: Wawa is known for its outstanding foodservice program. What actionsdid you take to make your company a leader in this regard?
Stoeckel: We have been a leader in the foodservice business sinceday one in 1964. We had a deli, a produce section, and where other conveniencestore didn’t offer foodservice, we did. Over the past four decades, our commitmenthas evolved from a provisioning business into an immediate consumption business.We have focused on developing our own branded products. At one point, we wereone of those retailers that thought co-branding was the wave of the future.However, we found that confused the customers. Moreover, customers really preferredour brands. The customer comes to Wawa for Wawa products, and they go to TacoBell for Taco Bell products.
We decided to focus on developing our own brands in the early 1990s, and there were many challenges with making this move. If you want to develop your own brand then you have to think like a national branded retailer, and realizing this made us better brand merchants. Today, we try to offer a blended product mix of nationally recognized brands and our own branded products, but that approach really got fast-tracked following our experience with co-branding.
CSD: Was there any one piece of equipment that had a profound impact onyour foodservice program?
Stoeckel: We introduced the rethermalizer to our stores about a decadeago to expand our hot foodservice offer and it transformed our product offering.Recently, we purchased a Merrychef oven, which allows us to toast our hoagiesand other products, and that has significantly impacted our business.
CSD: How do you determine which suppliers and vendors you work with?
Stoeckel:We look for long-term strategic partnerships. For instance, we have workedwith Miss Bay, our fresh food supplier for several decades. J&J Snacks,our bakery partner, has been a strategic partner for almost a decade. McLaneruns our distribution facility, and they are long-term partner. We look forcompanies that want to work with us strategically, and we look for partnersthat can help us create unique products for Wawa customers.
CSD: What is the most important distinction Wawa brings to the channel?
Stoeckel: Our people. When we ask customers why they shop at Wawa,the answer repeatedly is that they like the experience our people create inthe store. When we ask associates why they have stayed with us for 10 or 15years, they say it is the customers. That personal connection is the glue thatkeeps this brand together. We have three things, which we call the three P’s,that make us unique:
- Our people are in the stores to make our customers’ lives better everyday.
- High-quality products with a major percentage of those being the Wawa brand.
- Place. We build bigger stores with more parking than many of our competitors.I believe each of these makes us unique.
CSD: If I asked a Wawa associate why they work for you, what do you thinkthey would say?
Stoeckel: If that person works in the stores then the answer is verysimple and profound: our associates love serving their customers. They enjoysimplifying their customers’ lives and the daily interaction with them. Theyserve their neighbors and friends, and it is the customer relationsthat personalcontactthat is important. It’s what I refer to as the “Cheers” of thec-store experience. Essentially, you walk in the store and you see a friendlyface. Our associates get to know their customers by name and that creates satisfaction.
CSD: What past or recent associate initiative brings you the most satisfaction?
Stoeckel:Next year we will hold our 20th annual Presidents Club. It was created torecognize our top performing general managers. Each year we bring together thetop 20% of our general managers and celebrate their financial and business achievements.The event acknowledges our top performers, but it also embodies the best ofour culture.
Our general managers compete all year to be included in the Presidents Club, so we make the event something special. In order to reward them for their accomplishments, we choose resort destinationssuch as Mexico or the Islandsand provide them with a Presidents Club ring. Every event is exceptional and everyone leaves feeling so good about our people and our organization.
CSD: Why do you think consumers go out of their way to go to a Wawa store?
Stoeckel:First, they find our locations very convenient, but they also like the experience.Secondly, we are a habit-forming type of business. Stopping by a Wawa is somethingthat customers do on their way to work, on their lunch break or on their wayhome. We are an extension of our customers’ daily routine and our associatesare part of their experience. We recognize that people want more simplicityin their lives, so we try to make it easy for them to get a cup of coffee ora hoagie, and provide the personal experience they have come to expect.
CSD: What customer programs have proven to be the most successful?
Stoeckel: One of our strongest programs has been no surcharge ATMs.This again goes back to the mid-1990s, when we put ATMs in all our stores. Wedecided early on that even though the majority of ATM machines had surcharges,we chose not to have them. That decision created more goodwill in the marketplaceand more excitement than we anticipated.
Probably one of our biggest marketing ideas came 10 years ago when we got into the gasoline business to provide an additional convenience to our customers. Now we have approximately 200 fuel stations. Looking back on our history, fuel gave us a strategic thrust, while no surcharge ATMs and developing the Wawa brand have given us points of differentiation in the channel.
CSD: How does Wawa stay ahead of the competition?
Stoeckel: Thereis much more competition today from the niche retailers. We are competing withStarbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and many others so we have to evolve constantly tomeet our customers’ needs. Our challenge is knowing what we do best and stickingto it, as well as knowing what not to do.
CSD: What experience provided you with insight on how best to operate conveniencestores?
Stoeckel: It is all about the people. I believe my backgroundin human resources has provided the best insight on managing a convenience store.I spent 20 years in the human resources fields in
different industries. As aresult, I have spent much of my career focused on the people. This businessis about people. It is the Wawa associates and our culture that separate us.Much of my time has been spent manifesting the culture of our organization andthat is our competitive advantage. We focus on six values: value people, delightcustomers, do things right, do the right things, embrace change and have a passionfor winning.
CSD: Where do you hope to take the Wawa chain in the next 10 years?
Stoeckel: We need to continue to do what we do best. That means simplifyingour customers’ lives and focusing on foodservice, convenience goods and gasoline.We also continually refine the holistic brand experience. Our goal is to constantlyimprove because the competition is getting better and customers have many choices.