When John MacDougall challenged his team at Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes to come up with a company mission statement, he left pretty simple instructions. “Keep it short, keep it focused and let’s be true to ourselves,” he said.
The result was a concise proclamation of the chain’s commitment to the customers it serves: “Be Nice, Sell Stuff, Have Fun, Be the Best.” For its ongoing commitment to convenience retailing, outstanding service and its employees, CSD is proud to validate the company’s mission as the 2009 Convenience Store Chain of the Year.
“Being the Chain of the Year is a great honor, and I’m very proud of the effort everyone in the chain has put forward,” said John MacDougall, the affable and esteemed founder, president and CEO of the Canastota, N.Y.-based convenience store chain. “The last line of our mission statement says, ‘Be the Best.’ Over the years, I have always told our people to be very proud because they are the best. I know first hand just how dedicated and accomplished Nice N Easy is as a company. This award verifies to all the people of Nice N Easy just how good they are.”
Nice N Easy, with 83 corporate and franchised stores, is the smallest chain in terms of store size to receive the award—a fact not unnoticed by MacDougall.
“I am aware of the history of this award, which has typically favored larger companies. But the dynamics in this industry are changing,” MacDougall said. “The emphasis is on quality and service, not so much size anymore. That’s why we are so proud to be recognized with this honor.”
Nice and Respected
The team at Nice N Easy has affected so many in the industry in a myriad of ways. Whether it’s through participation in share groups, as a member of NACS or just lending a helpful word of encouragement, the group’s pristine reputation and devotion to its employees and customers truly sets it apart from many of its retail peers.
“This award means so much to us because it honors the entire chain. We wouldn’t be the company we’ve become without the hard work and dedication of the people who represent us,” said Fran Duskiewicz, senior executive vice president of Nice N Easy. “Yes, John MacDougall puts the ‘nice’ in Nice N Easy, but never underestimate his incredible vision and creativity. It’s rare to come across someone who combines all the best traits of a successful business leader the way Mr. MacDougall does.”
Nice N Easy is also regarded as a leader in the industry in key areas, such as technology, foodservice, labor management and innovation. Over the past 16 months, the company has wrapped up a major study tracking labor expenditures, opened its first diner concept, invested in solar panels as a means for powering convenience stores and is closely examining other cutting-edge power sources.
But what makes Nice N Easy special is the connection it has with its customers. In markets throughout upstate New York, Nice N Easy is synonymous with quality, freshness and upscale foodservice. Under the Easy Street Eatery banner, Nice N Easy offers a host of sandwiches and entrees that appeal to a wide-range of consumers.
“Our success has always been defined by the quality people we attract and retain. These people love to serve others, work hard, achieve goals and then celebrate reaching them,” Duskiewicz said. “Our culture has been built around doing just that and because success breeds success, we have always been able to attract even more outstanding people. That culture appeals to our customer base.”
This culture has been nurtured for more than two decades. In fact, the company has dozens of employees that have been with the company for more than 15 years. That alone says a lot about the leadership of this 83-store chain.
“Our corporate culture goes back to those people we hired 10, 15, 20 years ago who believed in us and have stayed with us because we kept them motivated and growing,” Duskiewicz said. “Because so many of them were quite young when we hired them, we have a terrific base of young professionals in their mid-30’s who are very experienced and professional. That, along with the fact that they are so devoted to Nice N Easy, makes us extremely proud.”
One of the benefits of having a great staff is that customers notice and the atmosphere becomes contagious. What’s equally impressive is that the company has the ultimate faith and confidence in everyone it hires. “The trust and great leadership that comes from the owner on down allows people to grow and learn from their mistakes,” said Peter Tamburro, senior executive vice president of franchise operations. “We believe in our people. It’s a very family-oriented business.”
|Nice N Easy’s Executive Team |
Executing a Retail Plan
While Nice N Easy has all the right programs in place, it is constantly focused on execution. After all, MacDougall said, all retailers are trying to be more convenient these days. The key is to stand out.
“You have to make sure you manage the customers’ time well, so they’re confident they can get in and out quickly and get on with their day,” MacDougall said. “Where we distinguish ourselves is in the service we provide. Some of our customers have been waited on by the same clerk that knows their name and their family by name. We put a value on these relationships and encourage all employees to foster new friendships.”
In fact, Nice N Easy views itself as much more than a convenience store operator. If you view its vast array of goods and services, you’ll quickly see why.
“We don’t necessarily go to other convenience store operators for new ideas, we go to who does it best,” Duskiewicz said. “That means if we like the foodservice program at Wegmans, then that’s who we are going to model ourselves after. Our strategy is to look, watch and listen, and then to determine if it’s cost effective and whether or not we can execute it flawlessly at retail. If we don’t think we can make it work in any of those areas, we won’t try to force it.”
The company is routinely reinventing itself with operational improvements that range from the relatively subtle to entirely game-changing. The decision to move into fresh foods with the Easy Street Eatery brand charted a new direction for the company, as did its decision to take control of fuel operations and rebrand the forecourt under the Nice N Easy banner. Today, the fuel procurement process has become a complex operation based on up-to-the-minute reports from NYMEX and Platts.
One of the biggest challenges the chain has faced through the years is the rise of Native American convenience stores and tobacco shops that have raided fuel and cigarette sales and scalped margins to bear minimums.
For example, the Oneida Nation operates more than a dozen SavOn convenience stores that compete with Nice N Easy—including one just blocks from its headquarters in Canastota—that sell tax-free gasoline and tobacco. Since New York is one of the highest taxed states in the country on gasoline and tobacco, the price advantage in both these categories is significant.
“We had every reason to fold up the tent,” said Matt Paduano, vice president of research and information. “But the very thing that put us at a disadvantage also helped us to thrive. We’ve become smarter operators, invested in better stores, developed an outstanding foodservice program and focused on creating the best possible experience for our customers. The result is that despite all the competition we’re facing, we continue to raise the bar in convenience retailing.”
Nice N Easy, in fact, saw the growth of Native American stores as a challenge to be a leaner, smarter marketer. Foodservice has been an important part of this strategy.
Jack Cushman, the chain’s vice president of foodservice, is still considered the “new guy” at Nice N Easy despite joining the company nearly a decade ago. He has made foodservice the focus of his education and career, and pizza is his forte. He received his Ph.D. from Kansas State University in Hotel, Restaurant, Institutional Foodservice and Dietetics. He then taught at both KSU’s and Ithaca (N.Y.) College’s business schools, and now he leads the foodservice effort for Nice N Easy.
When Cushman came on board, he examined how the programs in each store operated and saw room for improvement. For example, each store used a different sauce based on customer preferences, which broke rule No. 1 when it comes to developing a strong brand: consistency.
“Consistency is as important as quality when it comes to building sales,” Cushman said. “Customers want to know that they’re getting the same pizza every time. So we had to get everyone on the same page.”
Cushman physically examined everything the competitive markets had to offer, and then went to work developing and introducing innovative options for the Easy Street Eatery line. The result is an impressive array of fresh made-to-order sandwiches, pizzas and entrées supported with a line of fresh-baked breads, cookies, muffins and doughnuts. The program is constantly expanding to include unique and innovative offerings, such as healthy low-fat meal solutions, fresh fruit and locally grown vegetables.
It also includes a research and development kitchen where the chain tests dozens of new products that may stick on the menu or be introduced as limited-time options. Either way, the kitchen is just another example that you don’t need 500 stores to push the boundaries of innovation.
“Our foodservice sales grow every year,” Cushman said. “Customers want freshly made food. They will make impulse purchases, but we don’t want to only be an impulse stop, we want to be a true destination for foodservice.”
When asked about controlling costs, Cushman brings it all back to a simple but valuable economics lesson. “The best way to control costs in this environment is to see the entire value chain in every product,” he said. “You can own a product from the whole value chain—from start to finish—but sometimes it doesn’t make sense. We try to go deep into the value chain as long as we avoid aspects where we are not experts and where the economics of scale don’t make sense.”
As Nice N Easy scans the foodservice horizon, it continues to look for new ways to innovate. Its family of food offers is already substantial, but there’s always the potential to improve sales. For Cushman, taking a look at the company’s competition opens his eyes to new avenues, new opportunities and new profits.
“What’s scary is that anyone can do it if they’re willing to throw themselves into it,” Cushman said. “So five years from now we need to be light years ahead of where we are today. The competition never sleeps and neither do we.”
With the addition of foodservice, the cost of labor is constantly escalating, forcing retailers to make some difficult staffing decisions, ranging from layoffs to a significant reduction in labor hours allotted per store. Displaying the innovation you would expect from a Chain of the Year, Nice N Easy embarked 16 months ago on an intensive human resources study of all the labor hours expended by its convenience stores in an effort to make them more efficient. The results weren’t just good, they were astounding.
Using a third-party consultant, Tom Hart, of Targeted Solutions LLC, a former c-store retailer with more than 20 years experience, helped Nice N Easy recreated store schedules to help each unit be more efficient.
“The primary objective of our labor study was to analyze how we could best allocate hours, increase productivity and build on the outstanding customer experience Nice N Easy delivers on a daily basis,” Hart said. “Although the stores were well-managed, we knew there was an opportunity to improve efficiency.”
The study began with calculating the average time it takes to complete a customer transaction. The customer transaction study included thousands of transactions in five locations. Next, Hart identified the necessary tasks that need to be completed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
“We then determined the time necessary to complete the task through a time-motion study. Each task was observed in several locations with a number of employees,” Hart said. “This included tasks such as cleaning fuel pumps, stocking groceries, cutting fruit and making a sandwich for a customer.”
Overall, he identified more than 350 tasks to run the operation.
The study provided a number of immediate benefits. In high volume locations, with a complex operation like Nice N Easy, it is critical for store managers to assign tasks in advance, so employees can complete work during the period where customer activity is minimal. To help facilitate this activity, Hart designed a set of task cards for managers to deal out to employees. This gave them both the task and a time expectation for them to complete the action during their work shift.
For tasks that needed to be completed on a weekly or monthly basis, managers now schedule tasks for specific days well in advance, which assured the job will not slip into the next week or month.
Additionally, interaction between foodservice and operations teams was enhanced. Now both teams understand the workloads of the entire store, and they are able to pitch-in—maximizing their efforts together as one team.
“Many times in our business, productivity diminishes because management does not set expectations for work to be completed within a timeframe,” Hart said.
Now employees have a complete understanding of what is expected.
“During any type of complex study, you need a positive team effort. The cooperation, insight and enthusiasm I received from the Nice N Easy team was paramount to the project’s success,” Hart said. “Everyone from top management, supervisors, and store employees built a labor program together that will give them the tools they need to maximize productivity and strengthen an already impressive customer experience.”
As a result of the study, Nice N Easy developed a software program that was integrated into the back-office system that makes it easy for store managers to follow. The company may even look to market the software so other retailers can also benefit.
As the company continues to secure its place in the community, MacDougall and Duskiewicz are proud of how much the chain has grown.
“Because we started with few assets we had to be more creative, more frugal and more efficient in everything we did. We embraced technology very early in our history because we saw it as a way to level the playing field. We were able to do more with less and always have data to make sound decisions, which kept us in the game when we didn’t have too much else with which to work,” Duskiewicz said. “Even after becoming successful, we’ve never changed our approach from those tough early days.”
MacDougall is also humbled by what he created. “We preach the quality experience all the time, and I am so proud that we have evolved into a first-class organization with a very long history of success,” he said. “Our growth has exceeded my expectations, but it all begins with our people. At the end of the day you can look around and see great stores, but we would be nothing without our wonderful team of dedicated people, and for that I am eternally grateful.” CSD