chilling out in the open

Open-air coolers coupled with some creativity are helping retailers make the most out of limited workspace.

When the average customer walks into aconvenience store—or any retail operation forthat matter—items and prices need to forma marriage of value to motivate them to buy, regardless of the purchase.

This can be difficult given the limited space available in a c-store, but a clever design and making the most out of equipmentgoes a long way in having the right impact on customers, according to Michael Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions,a Fort Worth, Texas-based firm that has helped c-stores maximizesales by optimizing a store’s potential through its layout.

“People are coming into the store for a reason, but the key is toget them to buy more than what they initially came in for,” saidLawshe. “You need to give the customer a clear view of the itemsthey’ll want to buy, but aren’t thinking about buying yet.”

When arming stores with the tools that will best accommodatethe products that are going to draw sales, the placement couldmake all the difference when it comes to bringing in the rightkinds of customers. A potent tool retailers have been utilizing isthe open-air cooler.

Cooling Off Customers
Open-air coolers have garnered a lot of use lately, sparking agrowing trend in the layout of c-stores. According to Lawshe, thistrend is still in its infancy.

“Originally, the coolers were being used for just one type ofitem at a time,” explained Lawshe. “Now, they are used in avariety of ways, and retailers are experimenting with all different kinds of merchandise.”

And retailers are catching on. Todd St. Romain, owner ofMansura, La.-based St. Romain Oil, which operates Wash N’Go Shell stores, is among the biggest supporters of the units.

“I always try to make room for one or two of them in eachof my stores,” said St. Romain, who finds the price, merchandise flexibility and ease of placement to be among the mostuseful characteristics of the coolers. “I like to stock them upwith high-margin impulse items, such as packaged beverages,when there’s not enough room in the wall coolers.”

The selling strength for these units comes from their versatility. The units are much more mobile than the typical coolerslining the back walls of a store, allowing storeowners to placethem anywhere from the deli to the register, even right next tothe front door. “The coolers gain a lot of attention from our customers as they walk in,” added St. Romain.

Open-air coolers, typically fitted with a price tag under $10,000,also offer more sales and merchandising options for retailers at aprice comparable to wall coolers, yet yield a larger return thanksto the variety of items that can be stocked in them.

“They usually cost us as much as two wall coolers, but can carrya lot more than just drinks,” said St. Romain. This enables a strongreturn on investment opportunity.

Lawshe agrees with St. Romain, adding that with energydrinks, isotonics and different varieties of water successfullyluring in crowds, just having the items packed away in the coldvaults isn’t enough.

“You can’t just have these high-selling drinks in the coolers. Youneed to have them front and center, so that the customer can seethem right away,” Lawshe said. “It’s not enough to have an exciting, cool-looking endcap cooler. When customers go to Starbucks,they have everything presented and displayed right in front ofthem to draw them in. C-stores need to beat that by not only presenting the items to the customer in an appealing way, but byproviding convenience and ease to it as well.”

Dolling Up the Offering
While mobility plays a big part in the success of these units,open-air coolers leave a mark in c-stores by providing retailerswith an endless scope of options with which to fill the units. St.Romain takes advantage of this capability by mixing the content up with a variety of destination items aswell as impulse items.

“We try to fill our units with a lot ofready-made deli sandwiches, but we alsoput in products like dairy and eggs,” saidSt. Romain. “We’ll scatter in items like sodas and juices togo along with thedeli items.”

The open-aircooler is a potenttool that is usedalmostexclusively in c-storesales, and the keyto finding successwith them comesfrom balancingthe type of itemsplaced inside. Notonly are the coolersperfect for attracting customers whoare immediatelydrawn by the convenience—such asthe kind that comes with being able to graba drink while picking up the sandwich theycame for in the first place.

The mix-and-match capability of theunits is one of the biggest advantages toowning them. It’s also a great way to experiment and be creative with both marketingand presenting your products.

“It’s some of the most fun a retailer canhave when placing merchandise,” Lawshesaid. “Drink segments are constantly releasing new SKUs onto the market. Constantlyrearranging cold vaults to accommodatethe new products is a challenge for retailers.Open-air coolers not only give them a quickway of placing the merchandise, but it alsogives the new merchandise an opportunityto capture the consumer’s attention.”

While the coolers offer a stage for newproducts, St. Romain often uses them tosupplement his hot deli offering, which hedoesn’t always have room for in new stores.The biggest deciding factor on how to stockhis coolers is determined by the room astore has for foodservice.

“I see a lot of turnover with pre-madesandwiches placed in the coolers,” said St.Romain. “Even in stores where we have ahot foodservice offering, the sandwiches dopretty well. We have a cooler placed nextto the deli, which gives people in a hurrysomething quick to fall back on.”

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