“K” Marks the Spot

THE CONVENIENCE STORE INDUSTRY makes for a very competitive climate. With the vast number of convenience chains in business-not to mention the impinging presence of hypermarts- making a store’s presence known in a busy market can be very diffi cult. Ed Marszal and Liz Pritchard, co-owners of California Retail Management (CRM), discovered this when they started developing their business of automotive service centers into something more by branching out into the c-store industry. While their initial stores were successes, Marszal and Pritchard realized they needed an edge to turn customers in their direction and they found it when they decided to brand their stores under the Circle K banner.

CRM went with the brand, owned by Convenience Store Decisions’ Chain of the Year Alimentation Couche-Tard, back in late 2000. Since then, the company has expanded its Circle K offering, currently operating nine stores in the Sacramento market.

Marszal and Pritchard broke into the c-store business with a small 200-sq.ft. kiosk back in 1988. As the c-store industry began to boom, the pair realized it was going to have to offer more services and products to keep up in what was fast becoming a cutthroat market.

"The customer demand infl uenced us to move into larger stores," said Pritchard. "Both the customers and the stores were evolving and to keep up with our longterm goals; we had to evolve with them."

As CRM and its customer count grew, so did the size of its stores. The company spent several years operating unbranded c-stores that were built on site with the Chevron and 76 brand gas stations it owned. This approach was successful for Marszal and Pritchard, however, to keep up with the growing market, the pair needed to bring the power of name brand recognition.

The first step in this process was building two Circle K franchised gas station/ c-store units from the ground up.

"We branded those fi rst two stores with Circle K to go along with our 76-branded fuel," said Pritchard. "By taking on those two stores, we were able to experiment with the Circle K brand. Running a c-store under a brand name allowed us to really get a value for the market, and the experience that came out of it was very good."

When selecting a name brand, Circle K was a no-brainer for the company, added Pritchard. Not only did Circle K already have a strong following in the West Coast markets, but it was also a natural fi t to go along with the 76-branded fuel the company had been offering for years prior.

"It was the perfect solution for our business," said Marszal, who spent more than a decade working in the petroleum industry with Chevron before branching out to form CRM. "We knew from experience how to handle the gasoline side of things, but when it came to c-stores, Circle K was there to offer that extra push. It was like we instantly added a fully developed, experienced convenience store division to our business."

With the success of the fi rst two stores, the company will eventually expand its reach throughout the Sacramento market. They built one more Circle K store from the ground up and then converted many of the other stores they previously built to the same banner.

After only seven years under the Circle K brand, Marszal and Pritchard have found a wealth of success thanks to the reputation that comes with Circle K and Alimentation Couche-Tard. Marszal attributes much of the success to the strong sense of unity the brand provides to its franchisees, helping companies like CRM offer a service that matches the customers’ predetermined expectations.

"When we weren’t under the Circle K brand, we were much more disorganized running our stores," said Marszal. "But now that we have the brand, it brings a certain sense of uniformity to our stores, and allows us to blend in with other Circle K stores in the area. Having a brand as reliable as this helps bring our standards up to new levels."

Pritchard agrees with Marszal about the new level of reliability that comes with operating within the parameters of a Circle K franchise. While the two have earned success with their formerly unbranded stores, that doesn’t compare to the quality they are able to offer with such a powerful brand.

"While we did have a lot of prior experience running our own c-stores, working with Circle K shed a lot of light on the aspects of the business we could improve on," Pritchard said. "One of the problems with our unbranded c-stores was that our product offering turned into a bit of a hodgepodge-we weren’t aware of the importance of providing a strong, consistent product offering from store to store."

It wasn’t just the ability to offer a consistent line of products from store to store that helped the company’s Circle K stores fl ourish, though it did make a difference. What helped the chain the most, according to both Marszal and Pritchard, was the reputation that came with the brand and the products that were synonymous with Circle K.

"Our No. 1 reason for wanting to partner with Circle K was to to show our customers that we could offer them a reliable line of quality products and for them to be aware of that quality before they even walked into one of our stores," added Marszal.

CRM has benefited even more from Circle K’s new expansion into its branded products line. Products like the new GazZu line of energy drinks that the chain launched earlier this year have become a big seller in Marszal and Pritchard’s stores. The Ajava Café, Circle K’s proprietary coffee bar offering, has also garnered a lot of loyal customers.

With the success and operational competency the company has received since launching it’s Circle K franchise in the competitive Sacramento market, the coowners of CRM have nothing but a positive attitude when it comes to their own little slice of the c-store industry. The chain has been so successful for the company that the two owners are very strongly considering moving into new markets, most notably, converting their eight Hawaiian stores under the banner of the big, red "K" as well.


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