Mark Smith never planned for a career in convenience retail.
As a former fast food professional who once scoffed at the idea of gas station food, the chance to build a program from scratch led him to a convenience store chain in the 1990s. This kicked off a career with roles in operations, training, regional management, fuel and maintenance, and more.
As he was nearing retirement, a friend from North Carolina called and asked him to join the operations team at a new chain called Breeze Thru.
“I always tell people I’m not an operations guy,” says Mark, “but somehow I succeed at it. People tell me it’s because I actually care about the folks that work for me. That’s rare in this industry in an upper-management position, and I think that’s what drew me to the family-based operation here.”
Mark now serves as Breeze Thru’s vice president of retail. Based in Cary, North Carolina, the company operates nineteen stores across the state. They may not be the biggest retailer, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to be the best.
Here are five ways Breeze Thru has been able to stand out in a market dominated by some of the industry’s top brands.
1. Study the data
Complacency is never wise in retail. Just because something was profitable in the past doesn’t mean it was optimal then or now.
“What we do is look at data,” says Mark. “We’ve learned over the last six years that the center of the store doesn’t sell like it used to.”
Mark argues that retailers need to be more strategic about what they sell and how much space they devote to each product. At Breeze Thru, less-successful SKUs are routinely eliminated to create space for new and non-traditional alternatives.
“We think long-term that the old general store concept is going to come back,” says Mark, suggesting that although the world once shifted from suburban to urban, the current environment is pushing many back to suburbia. “We’re looking for opportunities to add those sections to our stores.”
2. Embrace experimentation
Rather than shying away from new trends, the Breeze Thru team leans in.
“We have talked to folks about 8-foot pet sections,” says Mark. “We’ve looked at dog washes, we’ve got Rockit bitcoin machines in our stores right now.”
Indeed, Breeze Thru’s bakery program is run through two local bakeries that enjoy powerful name recognition. This offers customers an alternative if they don’t want to drive all the way to the bakeries themselves.
The self-checkout process offered another opportunity to experiment. After a Gilbarco team member suggested that interaction might be needed between food ordering kiosks and self-checkouts—thereby removing the need to visit two locations to complete a single transaction—Breeze Thru volunteer to test the idea.
Customers can now use the kiosks to order food, scan products, and pay for the entire transaction. The kitchen is also able to differentiate between a paid and unpaid food order.
3. Delight your customers
Quartz countertops may not be a standard convenience store element, but you’ll find them at Breeze Thru.
“We spend a little extra money on our image to make our places more inviting,” explains Mark. “Our new store design has a meeting room for the neighborhoods where they can come in and run HOA meetings, and things like that.”
Mark argues that the days of getting customers in and out in ninety seconds are over. Although some may be in a hurry, Breeze Thru wants to invite everyone else to stay, talk with the staff, and sit and enjoy a coffee.
Hiring the right people is a key component of this strategy.
“I do like interacting with the customers. I do like to meet new people,” says store manager Lakisha Kirby. “There were some people who moved here from England. I get to interact with them, and I get to pick up on their accents.”
(How is Lakisha’s British accent? Watch our video to find out!)
4. Small means nimble
It’s difficult to make quick decisions when a company operates hundreds of locations.
For Breeze Thru, being small and nimble is a key advantage. Although each store retains the same base offer and brand image—such as warm colors and wood grain rather than tile—the remainder of the offer is continually adjusted to fit the needs of their respective communities.
“Big corporations take forever to make a decision,” says Mark. “You’ve got to drive it and push it for a while. Here, because we run so lean, it’s me walking down to my boss’s office. ‘Hey, we need to do this. Okay, let’s do it.’”
5. Look for vendors who want relationships
Fast-moving retailers need vendors who can keep up. That’s why it’s important to look beyond the sales pitches and determine who’s willing to build a relationship and grow together.
“If we have an issue on a new program, your guys jump in a car and drive to our stores,” says Mark, reflecting on Breeze Thru’s relationship with Gilbarco. “That’s a good feeling for us.”
Price is also an important aspect of this. Smaller operators are unfortunately too familiar with the experience of being ignored by vendors who price their solutions in a way that excludes all but the largest brands. Gilbarco has long worked to create options for everyone.
“You’ve got state of the art everything,” says Mark, “but you’re at a price that a company our size can afford.”
Frank Beard is a consultant and speaker in the fuel and convenience retailing industry.
Frank has spoken at major events both in the U.S. and internationally, such as the NACS Show, National Restaurant Association Show, Fancy Food Show, the Partnership for a Healthier America’s summit, NACS CEO Summit DACH, AACS Convenience Leaders Summit, and more. His insights and analysis have been featured on NPR, People.com, the Washington Post, Restaurant Dive, Thrillist, Atlas Obscura, and more.
Frank is the co-host of the In-Convenience Podcast and a regular contributor to NACS Magazine and NACS Daily. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. (@FrankBeard)