Fresh after moving into its new headquarters, the Ohio chain is reimaging company-owned stores, enhancing its foodservice program and signed a deal to acquire 30 more properties this fall.
By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.
In conjunction with its fourth anniversary year, EZ Energy USA Inc. is prepped for an aggressive expansion of both its store count and its newly improved Easy Trip store brand.
Last month, EZ Energy signed an agreement to acquire 30 gas stations and convenience stores for $50.5 million through its subsidiary Franchise USA LLC. Of the 30 properties, at least 23 are owned and at least six are leased, and all are set to be operated through a single supply contract. Provided the sale closes as scheduled in October, it would boost the chain’s store count from 92 locations to 122, growing its fleet of stores by a third overnight.
In addition, the company is in the process of rebranding 51 of its 68 company-operated stores under the Easy Trip c-store banner by the end of 2011. This move comes after months of defining the brand and testing a prototype unit in March.
EZ Energy has come a long way since it burst onto the c-store scene in 2007 with the acquisition of Central Ohio Energy Inc. that resulted in eight Easy Trip stores, six dealer sites and its former headquarters building in Mansfield, Ohio. Since then, the chain has grown through three additional acquisitions. EZ Energy currently supplies petroleum products to 92 retail locations, including 51 company-operated stores, 17 of which are ampm franchise stores, and 25 contract dealer locations.
In 2010, the company prepared for a major brand overhaul and its recent growth spurt by moving its headquarters from Mansfield to a new larger facility in Seven Hills, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, before laying the foundation to support its growth strategy.
“We are looking to create a long-term sustainable brand like Sheetz and the QuikTrips of the world,” said Gregg Budoi, CEO and president of EZ Energy.
The first step in achieving that goal was putting the right infrastructure in place, including a strong upper management team and category managers, after losing some of its staff in the move to its new headquarters. “We didn’t want to just blast off and start hanging Easy Trip signs until we really had the whole infrastructure in place and until we had a complete program that was ready to be executed,” Budoi said.
One year ago, EZ Energy officially began the rebranding process and in just nine months completed the remodel of its first Easy Trip store in March. The chain now looks forward to rebranding its 25 Pittsburgh-area stores in August. Once Pittsburgh is complete, it plans to focus on the Cleveland market, with the exception of its 17 ampm locations, finishing the process by the early 2012.
EZ Energy began the rebranding process in 2010 by taking a hard look at its overall image. “The first exercise was to question not just the logo, but the name and decide if we wanted to use the Easy Trip brand throughout the network,” said Damon Cranford, vice president of marketing and operations. “At the time we only had eight Easy Trip stores so we had the option, if we desired, to develop with a whole new name, but at the end of the day we opted to stay with the Easy Trip brand.”
With the name set, the company turned its attention to developing a fresher look for its Easy Trip logo and crafting the complete brand image. Working with New Jersey-based design firm Visual Graphic Systems Inc., the company developed a new interior and exterior appearance for the locations, complete with an updated color scheme, new signage and a better gondola layout. The company, which sells BP and Marathon branded fuels, purposely chose neutral colors—orange and blue—that wouldn’t clash or blend into those of the major fuel brands in order to ensure its c-stores would always stand apart from the gas brand.
Inside, EZ Energy re-merchandised the entire store to emphasize each destination. The brand is proudly displayed throughout the newly remodeled locations from the Easy Trip-branded coffee to the Easy Trip Deli and on napkins, cups and bags. The chain has also rolled out private label Easy Trip bottled water, and has plans to expand its private label products going forward.
In crafting the Easy Trip brand, EZ Energy gave special attention to its foodservice operation.
The company currently uses a three-tiered approach to foodservice depending on the size of the store. Its largest format stores offer a complete line of made-to-order food items, including sandwiches, pizzas, salads, wings, etc. Its medium-sized stores offer fresh prepared products made off-site, and its smallest format stores offer more traditional c-store fare due to space constraints.
All its Easy Trip stores are pushing a new doughnut program, through which Aunt Mary Ann Donuts are freshly delivered to its stores each morning. The program officially rolled out on June 6, at the chain’s Ohio locations, and on July 6, at its Pennsylvania locations.
EZ Energy aims to target three distinct consumer groups with its new image. The first is its core consumer, Bubba, who Cranford noted is evolving. “Bubba still includes your painters, electricians and landscapers, but also includes the guy in the Mercedes making six figures who drives to and from sales calls all day long—in other words a road warrior. We have to be able to accommodate the road warrior, so we’ve looked at what we need to do to appeal to that group,” he said
Secondly, Easy Trip is looking to entice the female demographic with softer colors, wider aisles and awnings that lend the store a market-like ambiance. “In every study we conducted or read, the female demographic said they want cleanliness and they want safety,” said Cranford. “We feel we can do that well.”
Third, Easy Trip seeks to attract the teen and young adult group. “What you can see in the logo itself is that we’re trying to be more playful and not as serious,” Cranford said.
To better entice all three groups, the chain is now in the process of developing an Easy Trip loyalty program. In the meantime, BP is set to roll out a loyalty program this fall that features a price rollback, which EZ Energy plans to offer customers at its BP-branded gas stations.
With four years under its belt, “Our real objective is to get to the point where we can differentiate ourselves in a new capacity. In the interim our focus is on doing the right things right 100% of the time. It’s a very simple thing to say, but a very complex thing to do,” said Cranford.
The company meets that goal by mastering the basics, such as strong execution, first class customer service, clean bathrooms and a well-stocked store. As it strives for excellence, Easy Trip looks to a number of other chains across the nation that model best practices in operations and marketing. “We’re going out and duplicating those best practices at our stores, and that is really the kind of growth stage we’re in right now, and our foodservice initiative is a strong component of that,” Budoi noted.
To that end, EZ Energy has instituted a core values statement, which it distributed to its employees, and it worked to enhance its processes and procedures, so all stores run smoothly. “We’re functioning more as one company today than a year ago. It’s an overall cultural shift and the new brand image illustrates that,” Cranford said.