Big box operators and supermarkets seem to dominate the Texas retail landscape. But while most of those stores focus on getting bigger, some convenience operators are finding that connecting with the consumers on a personal level is better.
Consider Whip In, a dynamic marketer based in Austin, Texas. It doesn’t have the size and real estate to compete with the Wal-Marts of the world, but consumers in Austin don’t seem to mind.
From blogs extolling the store, to newspaper coverage, to social networking posts about the self-described "corner shop," Whip In has become a cultural institution in the progressive South Austin area.
From its humble beginnings, the store now offers over 760 different types of beers, more than 1,000 types of wines, exotic cigarettes and a variety of specialty groceries.
"My mom and pop were going to open a Pizza Inn restaurant, but that fell through in the mid-1980s, but the deal fell through and we found this store instead," said Dipak Topiwala, the general manager of Whip In.
When the store first opened in 1986, Chandan and Amrit Topiwala, Dipak’s mom and dad, also sold gasoline. Bucking convenience store trends where gas stations are added to increase business, the Topiwalas found increased sales upon removing their fuel operations. They replaced that liquid with another one: beer.
"We started to offer a small selection of import beers, and that caught on," Dipak Topiwala said. "Gas was never a good fit because a Texaco across the street had a better offering. But what really hurt us was the interstate highway exit right in front of our store misses being able to turn into our parking lot legally."
Yet customers continue to risk accidents and motor vehicle violations by making illegal turn into the store’s parking lot off of I-35 in the Travis Heights neighborhood of Austin.
"Hence, the name ‘Whip in’ has a double entendre," Topiwala said.
Strange Store for "Weird" City
The retailer’s Web site describes the store as a "one-stop-global-shop for beer and wine."
"We’ve been evolving from pretty much day one, trying to offer quality and service like our friendly Travis Heights neighbors and fellow Austinites deserve," Topiwala said.
Austin is known as a cultured city that is home to a well-educated populace, many of whom are professors, students and graduates of the University of Texas at Austin. Drawing from the educated population has been a boon for many of the companies operating in the city, including Dell, IBM, Apple Inc., the 3M Company, eBay/PayPal, Intel, Samsung, Cisco and Sun Microsystems.
While there are several big name companies located in the city, it is also the home to Hippie Hollow, a public park where clothing is optional. The city is known for its music; the popular South by Southwest Festival draws up and coming musicians from all over the country.
The city not only ranks high on "Top Places to Live" lists in publications ranging from Money magazine, to Travel-Leisure and Mens’ Journal, but it is also ranked high on cultural lists, such as number 11 in the "Top 25 (Big) Cities for Art" by American Style magazine.
But Austinites generally go against the conservative, mainstream strain of the rest of the state. Natives probably do not like being put in a simple category. They like being unique. Which might be why a campaign started by the Austin Independent Business Alliance called "Keep Austin Weird," inspired similar movements in cities throughout the country.
Topiwala does not want to expand the store beyond his hometown. But he does want to "keep it weird," an atmosphere that he says is only possible in Austin. "Vibe is everything, as we are situated in an enclave of south Austin that prides itself in nonconformity. Product variety and real attitudes are tantamount to dealing with the real people we surround ourselves with."
Despite several offers to franchise Whip In, Topiwala said he has always returned to the same answer. "No. You cannot duplicate good character. You cannot be in two or more places at once and provide good stuff."
"Franchising turns our paradigm against itself: quality over quantity," he said. "The only reason to franchise is to have more money in a bad and unmeaningful way. I prefer riding the long-term arc that has kept us good from the start: providing meaningful interaction with quality goods and service for people who only want to be happy the moment they walk into our store and restaurant. To me, franchising is selling out."
But that won’t preclude growth. Plans for the future include opening up a separate Indian cuisine restaurant that will offer homemade beers, 100 beer taps and over 40 wines with live jazz and Indian music. In the meantime, Whip In captures all the unique qualities of the city where it is based and its popularity grows steadily. Outside the store, the Topiwalas are often recognized.
"My mom and pops are known as Mr. and Mrs. Whip In because Texans can’t pronounce Indian names. My dad’s nickname is "Joe," quite incongruent with his real name Amrit."
Filipino Brews, etc.
The store’s products mostly include things that its few dedicated employees prefer. With products like beers imported from Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, Greece and India or domestic varieties brewed in Louisiana, New York or Wisconsin and, of course, Texas, the taste is certainly eclectic.
"We pick what we sell according to what we like. We sell more Belgian ales by far than Budweiser. We sell more Cotes du Rhone and French wine in general than most wine shops. We sell more specialty food because we also enjoy them."
Wine prices are also kept affordable. Even unique wines range in prices from $4.99 to $12.99. From 4-8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a wine tasting occurs, with a 10% discount during tasting hours. If a wine needs to be chilled, customers can come in and get a chilled wine in four minutes, boasts the store’s Web site, www.whipin.com.
Most of the food Whip In sells is locally grown or from independent businesses, with an emphasis on organic products. Brands include Hoover’s barbeque sauces, Agasweet agave syrups, or Mary Louise Butters Brownies. According to the store’s menu, grocery and sundry items include, breads from Rudi’s Organics, a local baker, Orowheat, Mrs. Bairds De Cecco pastas, Amy’s Organic pizzas, entrées, canned soups, and beans, Thai Kitchen noodles and entrees, Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes, and Patak’s Indian microwave entrees.
Most of the tobacco products are also "exotic," including cloves, cigars and cigarillos. Sometimes, Whip In will win rights to sell certain wines exclusively if they get the all the allocation for the state.
Open ‘til Midnight
"We started from a basic rundown convenience store to selling anything we want to put up that looks pretty and is an evolution of style away from corporate sellout products and we wanted to focus on what we enjoy as good taste and style," he said.
While the products and character are unique, certain operations of the store appear to be standard. For instance, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds products are also sold, along with more mainstream products.
Some promotions are also similar to what is typically done in the industry, such as a beer of the month which offers discounts rates on select beers. Of course, the selected beer is probably a brand no one has ever heard of like Pinkus Organic Hefeveizen Pints or an All Bear Republic Brew for $3.99. While many retailers offer wine tasting, a weekly beer tasting is harder to find except at Whip In where one occurs every Thursday from 4-8 p.m.
Just like many operators of small convenience chains, Topiwala’s day starts early and ends at midnight. A gauge of how busy the store gets is in the amount of beer and wine he orders each week: 400 cases of beer and over 150 cases of wine to replenish the stores’ stacks.
"We open at 10 a.m. and then wait for the coffee and lunch crowd," he said. "We get major deliveries until 4 p.m. when folks get off of work and start planning their recovery with beer and wine. We’re busy until midnight."
The key to Whip In’s success, according to Topiwala, is what more typical retailers would also say: "Quality of product and service and very low overhead with dedicated staff."
But the store’s uniqueness is at times challenging to maintain. Whole Foods, the retailer of organic products with 270 locations across the country, is also headquartered in Austin. Texas liquor store chains also have enormous buying power and market control. This often makes Whip In an underdog, albeit a high-achieving one.
"Our true success lies not only in location and the wonderfully good karma of the neighborhood, but also in that we own the property and business and that anything we do good is good for the long run," Topiwala said. "That is worth way more than any mortgage."
While many convenience stores throughout the U.S. lack the size to compete with the likes of a Whole Foods, Whip In stays unique because it manages to not try and sell the products sold everywhere else. Topiwala’s advice for other retailers who want to create a unique atmosphere is halfway philosophical.
"Just like the Dalai Lama would want us to be: be yourself and transparently real as possible," he said.
But more practical advice would be to, "laugh a lot."
"Be specific to your area and don’t let corporate think take you over," Topiwala said. "There are enough products to sell out there to help make this possible, whether its small batch beer to single vineyard wineries to locally made brownies and vegan food. Help provide enjoyment."