Tougher economic times are pushing convenience retailers to look at how they can improve operations. While cutting costs may be one common theme, savvy retailers are also looking at other avenues to help them stand out among the competition.
"The economy changed and that changes how people are buying," said Brooks Blair, owner of Bells Ferry Inc., a Texaco dealer in Acworth, Ga. "Our customers no longer have the same amount of money in their pockets." That has meant a 20% drop in inside sales for Blair’s stores.
One big change that’s attributed to the inside sales slump is a decrease in customer counts as the construction business slows down. "There was a lot of construction in our area," said Blair. "That has been brought to a dead halt. Contractors around here now feel extremely lucky to work one day a week."
Blair has survived tough economic times before. The industry veteran has been operating the corner store in that Atlanta suburb for 19 years. One of the ways he guides his business through the difficult periods is by focusing on customer service.
"I think customer service is the thing that has kept me here. Every c-store is going after the same dollar. We have a lot of competition—we all offer the same things," Blair said. "The only difference is how people are treated when they come into the store. That’s the key thing that separates me from my competition. Customers need to have a good buying experience at our store."
To emphasize the importance of customer service to store employees, Blair turned to a new online training solution offered through the CBC Learning Center. The Learning Center is an educational and training component of Consolidated Buying Co. (CBC) in Westmont, Ill., that is available to all convenience retailers.
Blair completed the Great Customer Service course, and then had each of his cashiers complete the course. "We used the customer service course as our guide, which made it easy for me to reinforce good customer service skills to employees," he said. "Even with tenured employees, there is a need to reiterate and re-emphasize customer service. I’ve sensed more enthusiasm from cashiers as a result."
The course emphasizes customer service best practices, such as offering customers both a proper greeting and a sincere closing.
"Too often customers hear nothing at the end of a sale, or maybe they hear the cashier say ‘next,’ " said Pamela Romeli, vice president for the retail division at CBC. "Hearing ‘have a nice day’ or ‘see you next time’ completes the sale on a positive note. Providing your employees specific phrases and reinforcing best practices will help improve operations."
All of the Learning Center courses are designed to offer practical advice that operators can easily and quickly apply to their business.
Online training courses are designed to be interactive, allowing users to engage in the learning. For example, one interactive element instructs users to drag the correct phrases to a specific location.
"The interactive features work to both reinforce key points and maintain interest for the person completing the course," explained Romeli. Each course is designed to wrap up in roughly 30 minutes and includes a course completion certificate following a quiz.
Course subject matter focuses on issues that can be addressed at the store level, such as employee hiring and retention and improving mystery shop scores.
"Each course topic addresses a problem that retailers are facing today. One very pertinent issue in today’s economy is employee theft," said Romeli. "Employee theft is a big problem for our industry. Unfortunately, given the current state of the economy, it may become an even bigger problem for retailers."
CBCs Research shows that both employee theft and shoplifting incidents increase in a tough economy. CBC’s training course titled "Welcome to the Profit Killer: Employee Theft," teaches retailers how to identify and stop theft, prevent it before it occurs, and how to deal with dishonest employees.
One of the ways the course advises retailers to watch for employee theft is through excessive "no sale" rings on the cash register. The rule of thumb is that a dishonest cashier may have double the amount of "no sales" as an average cashier. To resolve the issue, the course recommends retailers regularly ask employees about "no sales."
"That simple act of communication with employees makes a huge difference," said Romeli, "because employees know that someone is paying attention."
New Owner Hope
Mark Blonde is another convenience retailer searching for guidance in this changing economy. He is on the verge of purchasing his first convenience stores, The Station Stops in Hillsdale, Mich.
"We’re watching traffic every day at the store, doing market research and watching sales," Blonde said. He’s also a customer of CBC online training courses; he wants to learn more about how to profitably operate the store. "We’ve learned a lot of inside information that will give us a competitive advantage as we enter into this new venture."
Blonde will hire some of the current employees and retrain them to compliment his operational goals. He also intends to completely overhaul the site. On his list of things to tackle: implement scanning, reset the store and rearrange the traffic flow to drive more sales, and increase foodservice.
Foodservice will become a more prominent offering in the store, where Blonde plans to add a Genuine Broaster Chicken offering from The Broaster Co. in Beloit, Wis. The store currently includes a co-branded Taco Bell.
"That automatically gives the store a foodservice customer base," Blonde said.
The economy may be giving Blonde pause, but it’s not stopping his desire or enthusiasm to purchase his first convenience store. "This is a totally new venture for us," he said. "We’re excited and optimistic."
Romeli stressed that all retailers can gain valuable insight through the CBC Learning Center. "Whether you are new to the c-store business or have years of experience, you will find a vast array of insight in the training courses. They have been created by business professionals specifically for convenience store retailers."
Training courses for convenience stores can be found at www.cbclearningcenter.com. CSD