At A Glance: Express Convenience Centers
Stores: 19 in the Fox Cities region of Wisconsin.
Fuel: 17 proprietary-branded Excelerator stati
ons and two BP stations.
• John Schmidt, President and CEO, U.S. Venture
• Paul Sippl, Director of Branded Fuel Supply, U.S. Venture
• Jim Anholzer, General Manager, Express Convenience Centers
• Kelly Chartré, Sales and Marketing Manager, Express Convenience Centers
After more than 25 years in business, Express Convenience Centers has decided it’s time for its 19 convenience stores in the Fox Cities region of Wisconsin to get a complete facelift.
Since mid-July, Express has been tackling one location a week, reimaging each store from building to canopy and from price signs to pump panels. Expected completion for the rollout is estimated for the last week of October.
As part of the new look, the brand logo is also getting a makeover, with its traditional green and yellow colors now being supplemented with a shade of orange for a more modern appeal.
“We’ve had the same logo, the same look since 1984, so we’re investing quite a bit of capital dollars into reimaging all of our stores. We’re giving a rebirth to the brand in order to make it more appealing to the younger generation,” said Jim Anholzer, general manager for Express Convenience Centers.
In deciding now was the time for a major overhaul, Express Convenience Stores polled independent focus groups, listened to customers’ opinions of its image and brand, and sought the expertise of a local public relations company.
“Currently, we’re focusing on updating our core stores, as opposed to going out and building or buying new stores,” Anholzer said. “Giving a reimaging or rebirth to the brand.”
Express Convenience Centers is the retailing subsidiary of Kimberly, Wis.-based U.S. Venture, formerly U.S. Oil (see sidebar).
The rebranding is expected to have immediate benefits. Express Convenience Centers is targeting a 5% sales lift from the renovations as customers pop into the stores to check out the revamped look. While changes will be evident in the forecourt, as customers enter the stores they will be greeted by a host of new products and programs that range from the front counter to the cold vault. Private label foodservice, soda fountain and coffee programs are just some of the new offerings the chain is eager to share with the public.
“Having recently introduced a number of new proprietary brands, an added benefit to the rebranding is that we might attract some customers who haven’t been in our stores in a year or two, but who used to be regulars. So drawing them back in the stores to see the updates we’re implementing and check out these new programs and products can help us secure them as regular customers again,” Anholzer said.
Express rolled out its proprietary coffee program in April 2009 under the name Dashboard Jo. It sources its new brew from local roaster Victor Allen Coffee, which roasts the beans specifically for the chain. The coffee offering consists of a wide variety of flavor options from S’mores and Irish Crème to Vanilla Nut and Blueberry Cobbler. Each brew is prepared fresh every 30 minutes.
According to data provided by Victor Allen Coffee, Express stores sold about 60% more coffee than the average local independent convenience store serviced by the supplier.
“Dashboard Jo is a high-quality, coffeehouse product,” Anholzer said. “In our coffee bar area, from our rugs to our cups to our copper ceiling tile, the color scheme and ambience lends itself to a coffeehouse feel as opposed the feel of standing inside the convenience store.”
With its new fun, catchy name Splash Attack, the soda fountain is already drawing new business. In April 2009, the drink offering began donning the trademark name, which is prominently displayed on the 16-head soda fountain and soda cups. Customers also have the option of adding up to eight different flavor shots, such as cherry vanilla, lemon lime and energy.
As with Dashboard Jo, the proprietary brand Splash Attack aims to make soda fountain beverages a destination for the chain. In June, Express promoted the fact that between the 16 different sodas and eight shots, more than a million drink combination
s are possible. The offering also ties into the chain’s slogan “Express Yourself” by allowing customers to mix a beverage unique to them.
The fountain overhaul is delivering immediate results. “For example,” Anholzer said, “we promoted Splash Attack throughout June in all of our stores, and we sold 9,500 more cups of fountain soda this June versus June 2009 on a same store basis.”
U.S. Venture Evolves
Express Convenience Centers’ parent company U.S. Oil officially changed its corporate name in June to U.S. Venture Inc. The company has come a long way since its start as a home heating and fuel delivery service in the 1950s, and felt it was time for a new name to reflect its strategic growth strategy. It selected Venture, meaning to undertake or dare, to reflect its business diversity and spirit. U.S. Venture plans to continue to use the U.S. trademarked logo and star—a symbol of strength and company unity. Its U.S. Petroleum group has taken the name U.S. Oil. Express Convenience Stores and U.S. Petroleum Equipment are part of this division.
Along with the name change, U.S. Venture moved into a new LEED certified headquarters at 425 Better Way, in Kimberly, Wis., in June 2010. The new building was constructed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold standards of sustainability by Hoffman Corp. “The new headquarters brings more associates together than any other time in our history. Being more closely connected enhances our team efficiency and effectiveness, so we can move faster and smarter, together,” said U.S. Venture CEO John Schmidt.
The building features recycled and reclaimed materials; high-performance windows that provide light, while reducing glare and heat loss; and an HVAC system that allows individuals control over heating/cooling. The building’s energy features are expected to lower energy costs by 18–20% and water costs by 40–45%.
U.S. Venture is also providing bicycles for associate use to encourage active lifestyles and alternative transportation among employees.
Last month, Express rolled out its foodservice proprietary program called Dashboard Dining and is set to start promoting the new program throughout August. In implementing the program, Express partnered with a local grocery store named Festival Foods that prepares its food offering fresh, daily.
“Before Dashboard Dining, we did carry sandwiches and salads through a DSD local broker that supplies 90% of the c-stores in the state with their packaged sandwiches. So we carried the same product everyone else carried. We switched to a local grocer simply to differentiate ourselves,” Anholzer said. “Dashboard Dining is always fresh, never frozen, so it’s made literally at 5-7 p.m. at night, and it’s in our stores by 5 a.m. the next day.”
The offering includes sandwiches and subs, fresh-made salads and wraps, and cups of fresh cut veggies and fruit. The new array of food choices is not only fresher, but is a healthier option than the chain previously carried.
“We wanted to leverage the brand equity in Festival Foods, which is a well-respected grocery chain, but we are also able to offer these higher quality products while not increasing our retail pricing,” Anholzer said.
Once Dashboard Dining gets off the ground the chain has plans to increase the offering to include pizzas. The chain is working with Festival Foods to develop unique pizza recipes, which Anholzer hopes to roll out in October.
While two of Express Convenience Centers’ 19 stores offer BP-branded fuel, the other 17 provide an unbranded fuel offering. As an unbranded fuel provider, Express Convenience Centers decided it was time to extend its proprietary vision to its fuel program as well.
As of May 2010, its unbranded fuel began sporting the name “Excelerator,” a play on words that is reminiscent of the Express name while also advertising the chain’s top tier fuel brand, which is certified by General Motors.
Express received the “Top Tier Status” distinction because it adds twice the amount of cleaning detergents required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for ordinary gasoline.
Already the new proprietary fuel brand has helped business. “In an economy where most every independent I talk to is down in Wisconsin, we’re actually up on a same store basis a little over 2% for fiscal 2009,” Anholzer noted.
The top tier fuel brand also includes the new yellow, green and orange color scheme now seen in the new logo and on station canopies.
The in-store proprietary brands—Dashboard Jo, Dashboard Dining and Splash Attack—do not tie into the same color scheme as the logo, fuel brand and new overall store look, but do connect with each other. The Dashboard Jo font style and color scheme, for example, also match the color scheme and labeling style for Dashboard Dining products.
Express also offers a proprietary gift card and credit card program, and this August it plans to roll out a proprietary Fleet card.
U.S. Oil, which changed its name to U.S. Venture in June, began in the 1950s as a fuel distribution company that owned terminals and supplied fuel locally in Wisconsin. The progression to a retail operator was a natural next step for the company in the 1980s. It built its first Express Convenience Store in 1984. Today, the company owns fuel terminals in Madison, Green Bay and Milwaukee. In addition to distributing to its own stores, the company’s jobber business supplies another 350 stores throughout Wisconsin.
“On the fuel distribution side, we touch more than 30% of all fuel distributed in Wisconsin,” said Anholzer.
While U.S. Venture’s Express Convenience Centers are continuously looking to purchase new sites, it has added the concept of franchising the Express brand in Wisconsin as another future goal.
“I think one reason we’re a chain to watch is because we’re creating all these new proprietary programs, so that if we do chose to go down the franchising route, these programs would be offered for independent station owners. They would have access to all our programs and pricing. It’s a very exciting initiative and a way to grow the brand without spending the millions of dollars on brick and mortar to build a new store,” Anholzer said.
But for now, the chain is focused on revamping its image and succeeding with its new offerings. “Proprietary brands aren’t a new concept,” Anholzer noted. “Countrywide, more chains are going with proprietary brands across multiple categories, but in our state, we’re differentiating ourselves and our brand by setting these quality products apart and making them destinations within our stores to keep customers returning to our stores for our brand.” CSD