To Boost Sales: Add Helium

Somewhere around elevation 16,000 feet, Kent Couch might have been wondering if he’d bump into the tip of the bar graph charting the rise in credit card interchange fees.  

Or maybe he was just too busy enjoying the view.

“It’s just a beautiful way to see Oregon,” said Couch, 48, a two-time cluster-balloon flyer and now world record-holder for longest distance traveled in a cluster-balloon flight. “It’s so peaceful.”

Owner of Stop and Go Mini Marts, which markets Shell fuels in Bend, Ore., Couch embarked on his second cluster-balloon flight in as many years last month when he traveled across 235 miles of Oregon countryside while seated in a lawn chair—yes, a lawn chair—tethered to 160 tortoise-sized helium balloons.

A glimpse at his trip arsenal: A GPS device, an altimeter, a Butterfinger, beef jerky, Gatorade, a video camera and a BB gun and blow dart to pop the balloons so he could descend to earth. He was also wearing a parachute as a precaution, a foresight that served him well in 2007 when he had to bail out at 2,100 feet during his first cluster-balloon trip over Oregon.

“My chute didn’t open till 700 feet,” Couch said of that first trip, when a glitch forced him to make an unscheduled skydive. “They like it to open by 2,000 feet.”

Couch survived to fly another day, which came on July 5 when about 700 onlookers gathered to watch him lift off from the parking lot of his convenience store and ascend into the heavens. A liftoff from the convenience store property was “kind of a gamble,” Couch said. “You could go out in the desert, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.”

He averaged 14,000 feet in elevation throughout the journey and hit a high of 16,000 feet. Somewhere along the way, around 15,000 feet, he heard a dog bark and a cow moo, but saw neither of them. At 11,000 feet a butterfly landed on one of his balloons. His average speed was 31 mph and his top speed was 49 mph.

“It’s cold up there, in the 40s with no wind,” Couch said. “Especially after coming out of the 90s.”

A bit more than nine hours after liftoff, he plopped safely down in a field in Cambridge, Idaho, where he was met by his family and others who had followed his progress by car.

The primary purpose of last year and this year’s trips—beyond the obvious enjoyment of a seagull’s view of the world—was to promote his convenience store business and show folks in that corner of Oregon that his and his wife’s convenience store operations are just a little different than other marketers.

By any standard, it worked. Couch said he saw sizable increases in gallons sold both in-store and at the pumps during his cluster-balloon flights, though he wonders if it wasn’t because the flights coincided with the holidays.  

Truth is, Couch probably didn’t need to float 16,000 feet into a cumulus cloud to highlight his proclivity for innovation.

“We kind of separate ourselves and brand ourselves a little differently,” he said of Stop and Go Mini Mart. For example, he promotes full-service gas operations where attendants offer old-time services, such as checking the oil and cleaning the windshield.

The Bend, Ore., store, from where he lifted off also features a sub shop and a beer cave that actually looks like a cave—“there’re icicles on the inside,” he said—as well as an ice cream program that borrows concepts from Cold Stone Creamery.

Couch’s equally entrepreneurial wife, Susan, owns and operates the family’s second store, Sister’s Market, a 4,600-square-foot convenience store in Sister, Ore., located just a short poke from Stop and Go Mini Mart.

She doesn’t fly cluster balloons, but Couch said she’s a great supporter of his escapades.

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