the pulse of the cstore

Front counter space is limited, but with some smart merchandising and eye-catching new products, it can provide high margins for retailers.

The convenience store front counter provides the perfectcanvas to showcase a mix of hot new items and profitableimpulse buys that will grab customers’ attention. But expertsagree that this area is among the most underutilized sellingplace in the entire store. Boosting impulse sales at the front counteris extremely important because the products displayed near thecheckout offer a high turnover and strong profit returns.

Organization is Key
Krause Gentle Corp.’s Kum & Go stores, based in West Des Moines,Iowa, sees more than 360,000 customers pass by its front counterson any given day throughout its 450-store network, which spans theMidwest.

A traditional Kum & Go location offers customers two checkoutaisles with impulse items strategically placed in front of the registersand to each side of the checkout lane. Surrounding the customerwith merchandise greatly increases the chances that a product willcatch their eye while approaching the checkout.

“A customer’s impulse purchases are most often fueled by curiosity,”said Dana Sump, marketing category manager for Kum & Go. “Ifa product appeals to the senses and is brightly colored, it has a betterchance of selling.”

Some of Kum & Go’s best selling merchandise at the front counterincludes two for $1 beef jerky, BIC lighters, over-the-counter HBC products,single cigars and candy. These items represent a wide variety ofdifferent categories that have the most potential to sell in an impulseenvironment. Often, monthly “suggest sell” items from suppliers areplaced there to test out their movement potential.

“The front counter is a great place to feature a new item if thefootprint isn’t too large,” said Sump. “Margin potential is also a considerationfor whether the product gets placed on the counter or inanother location.”

A variety of different display vehicles are used to merchandiseKum & Go’s front counter, keeping it neat and organized so that customerscan easily select products. The chain uses a combination ofwire racks, Plexiglas cases and plastic racks to maximize the limitedamount of valuable space.

Suppliers, such as BIC and Novelty Inc., present their products toretailers whenever a new item is about to hit the channel. The marginscan be high on timely items, such as movie-themed candy, orones that carry popular subject matters, like a drink series lighter. Italso helps that suppliers provide premium display sets that are specificallydesigned to maximize front counter space.

When organizing the front counter so that it doesn’t become tooovercrowded, Sump helps identify select selling zones and the itemsare placed on a prioritized basis. The chain makes sure that items arerotated regularly to ensure a fresh, full look for the customers.

According to Todd Green, president of Novelty Inc., the key toincreasing front counter sales is to really drive the rotation of a productand keeping the selection appealing and new.

“As long as the counter is clean, organizedand non-obtrusive, the customer ishappy,” said Sump. “Those who want tobrowse can do so, while those that wantspeed of service can get on their way.”

Several factors play into a customer’schoice in purchasing an impulse item, like ifnational advertising has caught their attentionor if the item is perceived as a value.Sump feels that suggestive selling by storeemployees is the best way to encouragefront counter impulse sales since it givesanother dimension to the shopping experienceby allowing for personal interaction.

Testing the Waters
The front counter remains a great spotto display new items in small quantitiesbefore retailers have to commit to a largerorder. Adam Wilson, president and owner ofAJ Convenience in Largo, Fla., tests out newitems about every two months to gatherenough sales data to determine if the productis worth keeping for the long term.

“Some of the products at our front counterthat start out as impulse buys caneventually transform into destination items,”said Wilson. “For example, the liquid energyshots have become very popular and peopleare starting to specifically ask for it.”

AJ Convenience also carries single-servecandy on the front counter. The candy’s lowprice points of 15 to 25 cents encouragecustomers to toss in several treats with theirpurchase. Wilson has noticed many establishedcandy treats, such as the Zero candybar, that have disappeared and recentlycome back with items that can spark nostalgiain older customers.

The company tries to supply a mix ofproducts that appeals to everyone, basingits merchandise selection on profitabilityand size. One of the main concerns for all c-storesretailers is making sure that their frontcounter space is stocked with all the necessaryimpulse items while keeping the areaaesthetically organized.

“Most items are arranged to optimize limitedcounter space,” said Wilson. “When a product complements another item, we can structure the space toreally attract the customer.”

Wilson stocks food items that are generally non-perishables, suchas beef jerky and novelty candy, but also sells single-serve fruit selectionslike bananas.

Safety First
First Choice C-Store, in Safety Harbor, Fla.,said its primary concern regarding the frontcounter is to keep items that are prone totheft stored behind the counter. Items suchas cigarettes, phone cards and medicationare stocked above the cashier’s head so theyare in plain view, but a customer must ask forthe item.

“High-ticket items are usually kept out of thecustomer’s reach,” said Fady Hanna, owner ofFirst Choice. “It’s a preventative measure toavoid theft and also keep inappropriate itemsout of the hands of children.”

Competitive pricing can make all the differenceon the front counter, according toHanna. First Choice is one of four competingc-stores within a two-mile radius,and he always tries to stock the newestitems with the lowest prices. Hannawill almost always try out a new productand secure a spot for it as long as it’sselling consistently.

Hanna stocks items that peoplemay forget to purchase if itwasn’t sitting in front of them atthe checkout, such as gum andlighters. He prescribes to thesame philosophy as Kum & Goand AJ Convenience, that if anitem isn’t moving from the counter,it doesn’t belong there.

“The front counter items shouldpromote themselves,” said Hanna.“The key to selling impulse itemsis the right product mix so thatyou have something for all yourcustomers.”