Prototypes with Plasticity

The successful development of a convenience store prototype is a bit like an exercise in finding one’s soul. 

Half the soul-searching is done through scrupulous examination of all the internal components, while the rest is done by accounting for all the external forces that perpetually shape the inside.

Sound spiritual and cryptic? Maybe just a single word is adequate to capture a successful prototype process: flexibility.

“The key, really, is knowing that there’s a place for every type of convenience store,” said John Schaninger, vice president of marketing for New Jersey-based Quick Chek Food Stores. “An operator has to decide what their vision is for the future. It’s really about determining what your offer is and seeing your place … and then optimizing it.”

What Schaninger and other retailers know is this: Any viable retailer can polish a store brand to adapt to a volatile market, but a prototype concept is successful not just by capturing the brand identity, but by building in enough flexibility to handle the inevitable variables.

Trends change, brand colors fade and city council members get big heads that slow down approvals of building permits. Designing a prototype concept with contingency and flexibility is, well … kind of like finding your true self.

“It takes us two to three years to get a store built,” Schaninger said. “On paper we design it, but when you go out and build it, you get to see what you like and what you don’t like, and then you tweak the design.”

Foundation First
With more than 100 stores throughout New Jersey and southern New York, Quick Chek has long been an innovator in foodservice, coffee and other categories.

The chain’s recent prototype stores include a template in beer-friendly New York, as well as a separate design for New Jersey, where c-stores are prohibited from selling beer. “We did a lot of work engineering each department,” Schaninger said. “We know, for example, how big our prototype coffee center should be, then our bakery, then the sub bar, the soup bar—even a standard for how many cooler doors there are.

“We basically took everything we knew would maximize the customer’s experience, put it in a box, and said, ‘How big does this have to be?’”

As it turns out, 7,200 square feet. The Quick Chek prototype store in Lake Katrine, N.J., is a c-store colossus centered on major in-store profit centers, but it also offers an impressive 20 fuel bays outside.

The chain’s design process required input from every portion of the executive spectrum, from the construction department and category managers to human resources and accounting. 

Store rollouts in the future can certainly be less than 7,200 square feet, Schaninger said, but the prototype size offers a suitable template to help steer growth with new site selection or expansions at existing sites.

It’s a similar tale for retailers like Wilson Farms, a 200-store chain based in Williamsville, N.Y., and West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go, which operates 430 stores in the Midwest. Both companies have developed prototypes using everything from sales and marketing departments to accounting specialists and customer input.

Wilson Farms’ corporate staff, for instance, fleshed out the finer points for each market’s competitive profile, neighborhood, consumer trends and demographics, traffic patterns, site condition, building ordinances and financials, said Paul Nanula, Wilson Farm’s CEO. 

Firmly Flexible
Kum & Go’s prototype store has been around for about four years, though the in-store elements are constantly changing—the equipment, category focal points and aesthetic elements such as tiles and light fixtures.

While Kum & Go’s site plans are uniquely flexible, they must still maintain a minimum standard that aligns with the overall brand strategy, said Nikki DePhillips, the chain’s vice president of real estate.

For instance: “We draw every one different, but there’s a particular spacing that we need from the canopy to the front door,” DePhillips said. To a great extent, the same applies to the appearance of gas-island canopies. “We’re branded, so the red canopy is the look of the canopy brand. Many times, a (city council) will want to make it a neutral color or make it fancier than we typically would.”

As a functional slice of the stores, the canopy designs leave little wiggle room for flexibility. “If we pitched the canopy, it would actually be taller than the building,” DePhillips said. “And visually, it’s not the look we’re going for and it doesn’t make sense from a cost standpoint.”

No matter how flexible they are, they realize they can’t betray the brand—their true identity. “There were certainly sites we’ve had to walk away from,” she continued. “We’re not saying we need to get everything, but there are certain things we need in order to be successful.” 

Another area that doesn’t lend itself to flexibility: site accessibility. “It’s so important for the site to be convenient to our customers,” DePhillips said, “for them to get in and out quickly. That’s the most important piece to us. If you can’t maintain access to the site, who’s going to come?”

Kum & Go allows for flexibility on some elements of the exterior design, such as signage or the color of bricks and facades. Wilson Farms’ Nanula echoed the same.

“Our branding elements are relatively constant to support and reinforce our images of service, value, assortment, quality and freshness,” Nanula said. “Fixtures may be changed or upgraded based on new technology, or changes in product or service offerings.”

A Convenience Chameleon
In Romeo, Mich., a town just north of Detroit, c-store planners created a prototype concept that’s well-equipped to change with the whims of outside forces. 

Towns Mart, operated by Steve Nalu, is a 4,500-square-foot c-store that oozes a strictly European feel. Its design elements and signage sport a sort of urban Romanesque feel with mosaic flooring, Tuscan-style accents and muted earth tones.

Though the design has been rolled out to just one store, it was designed foremost as a template for other Town Mart stores, or any other chain that’s interested, said Tony Camilletti, vice president of strategic development at DFab, the firm that designed the store.

Towns Mart was designed with future changes in mind, such as the décor and graphics, which can be changed or upgraded according to new trends or rebranding.

It’s a theme retailers have echoed in prototype designs: flexibility. For example, several chains in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, both states that prohibit beer sales in convenience stores, have designed their cooler doors to be removed at some point and replaced by sliding doors for a beer cave, should that day ever come.

Camilletti, who has designed stores for retail giants outside the c-store industry as well—including companies like PetSmart, Kroger and Sears—said it’s crucial that retailers build in contingencies for future changes and shifting trends.

“It’s a wise move,” he said. “You have to be able to take advantage of business opportunities and opportunities for growth, or the ability to offer new products. It’s just wise to remain a little flexible.” CSD



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