mapping out a plan

When eyeballing the top line, retailers won’t confuse maps with tobacco or packaged beverages anytime soon. But this segment deserves the respect it might not be getting.

Americans continue to amass near large cities—but they also have begun to poolin many smaller, traditionally rural towns. Take Atlanta and Asheville, NC,for example. Since 2000, the 10-county area surrounding Atlanta has added anaverage of close to 77,000 new residents per year, according to the AtlantaRegional Commission. Asheville, a small but growing city in western North Carolina,also continues to experience tremendous growth, fueled by its remoteness andwealth of all things outdoors.

Such population booms undoubtedly cause some growing pains, but they also present sales opportunities for convenience retailers. While not traditionally paid much attention by harried c-store category managers, the maps segment can offer steady sales at a decent margin of 40% or higher, with price points ranging from $5 for folding maps to $20 for atlases. And while the volume by no means competes with the likesof tobacco or packaged beverages, not carrying a selection of maps can turn away potential customers—and their dollars.

“They may not contribute a lot in terms of a high percentage of sales, but customers expect a convenience store to carry maps,” says Janice Ferguson, partner in Pacer Fuels, a 14-store chain based in Austell, GA, a northwestern suburb of Atlanta. “Customers come to our stores to purchase maps if they’re new to the area or if they’re traveling through—or even if they just need a map.”

Ferguson says she has a couple of stores near sport-fishing lakes, and her vendor—JSK Map Services (800-678-6277)— has been able to provide maps of the lakes, complete with topographical information, GPS coordinates, marina locations and surrounding stores, restaurants and other retail establishments. The customers that buy these maps are the same customers that load up for a day out on the lake with purchasesof fuel, packaged foods, beverages, snacks, bait and other supplies.

JSK, which links with strong brand partners like Mapquest, Superior and National Geographic to rival “national” vendors Rand McNally and Universal, offers about 15 different styles of racks, ranging from easels and endcaps to narrow-profile displays for the point of sale. The busiest interstate stores often sell $1,000 to $1,200 worth of maps per month, according to JSK Map Services Marketing Supervisor Tom Beck.

“It’s a seasonal industry,” he says. “As early as April and throughout the summer, sales of atlases and tourist-related items are strong. January, February and March are traditionally slower months. Two titles make up the largest percentage of sales: the local map, which almost always has the greatest number of sales per month; and not far behind is the state map. Interstate stores will sell about 10 to 15 atlases per month.”

There are always exceptions, of course. Beck recalls one convenience store in north Georgia that routinely “ruins the curve” on sales of state folding maps, which generally retail for $4.95 each. On average, a convenience store might sell 25 to 50 state maps per month, but this store requires a monthly inventory of 100 to prevent out-of-stocks.

With retailers unable to “waste” space in any part of the store, effectively managing the maps segment becomes nothing short of critical. Sue Des Roaches, whose Asheville-based Citizens Fuel Co. also works with JSK to maintain map displays, says her Citi Stop stores had to do some retooling in the early going.

“We started with a huge variety of maps, and you’re talking about a huge number in terms of inventory costs,” she says. “You have to target the individual market and see what you’re most in need of. Asheville is growing rapidly. It has a lot of retirees, but there are also a lot of transient workers that come and go. I see maps as a huge benefit to those shoppers as well as to tourists or shoppers that are traveling, but not so much to the local trade.”

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