Anyone who’s been in the industry as long as Dennis Lane is more than supremely qualified to help other retailers cope successfully with the changing c-store landscape.
Lane—who was elected last November to head the 2,000-member National Coalition of 7-Eleven Franchise Owners Association after serving for the past several years as vice chair of merchandising for former association president Tariq Khan—has seen a lot of marketing shifts in the 34 years since he bought his store right out of college. Prior to assuming national association leadership, Lane was a founder and past president of the New England FOA.
The simple fact is that franchisors and franchisees view the c-store world differently, but the perception if often that the franchise relationship benefits one side over the other, Lane notes. Neither side is going to get everything it wants, but making an effort to understand each other takes a lot of friction out of the relationship.
"Over the past few years there have been several management changes at 7-Eleven and neither side has always optimized opportunities for a more productive relationship," Lane said. "But I want us to have an energized, but mutually beneficial relationship."
Lane sees the industry changing at light speed—and the shifting product matrix means that retailers need to begin focusing on categories many have heretofore taken for granted by combining the expertise and experience of vendor partners with retailers’ own knowledge of their customer bases. "We need to almost micromanage each category to take advantage of untapped opportunities," he said.
The true power of the national association, he pointed out, lies in the strengths of the 26 local coalitions across the country, each one of which is unique and each brings something different to the table. And while it used to be that 7-Eleven saw its retail outlets as cookie cutters, today’s marketplace demands satisfying regional needs, not on finding the dog food on the same shelf in every location.
"The way we do business here in Massachusetts is very different from the way they do it in Seattle, California or Colorado," Lane observed. In most parts of Pennsylvania sauerkraut is the hot dog topping of choice; in North Carolina, it’s cole slaw. Both toppings are made from cabbage, but there’s a world of difference in the way they taste.
"Our new approach is understanding the different marketing opportunities unique to each region, which means paying attention to what your customers want."
A great example of this can be seen in Lane’s own store, located just south of Boston in an area with a huge Irish-American population. Factoring that into his buying decisions, Lane began carrying British candy bars a few years ago—and today his store sells more Cadbury Crunchies than Snickers, Reese’s or M&Ms.
But the mantle of leadership goes above and beyond product assortment and category management. Lane will have several issues to deal with going forward, most notably 7-Eleven’s transition to a franchised-based business model. This means there will not only likely be an influx of new members, but it also means a greater role for franchisees in the convenience company’s strategic direction, and a lot more people with new ideas and opinions on how things should be run.
Lane is committed to letting franchisees have their say, but his focus on creating the best situations for members and 7-Eleven so the two sides can mutually grow the business. "I’m not looking for concessions from 7-Eleven and I don’t want 7-Eleven looking for concessions from me," he said. "As long as we stay focused and work together there is no reason why everyone shouldn’t benefit."