Hometown Convenience

Folks in Walla Walla, Wash., say their town is so nice, you have to say it twice.

Bill and Loretta Singer (pictured on front) may be inclined to say it three or four times, seeing as the dynamics in this small town 13 miles north of the Oregon border have grown their relatively young convenience store, Singer’s Chevron, into something supremely successful.

Last month, Singer’s Chevron was named among Chevron’s top stores in the country. For the second year in a row, after just three years in existence, Singer’s c-store received Chevron’s Customer First Silver Award, ranking fourth in Washington and 67th among more than 8,500 Chevron c-stores nationwide.

A team of mystery shoppers recruited by Chevron shopped Singer’s Chevron six times in 2007 to rate its customer service, cleanliness and overall appeal. The store came out with perfect scores on every visit.

“It’s a good location here,” Bill Singer said. “I thought this would be a perfect spot for a food mart, and it’s worked out really well.”

Ask the record keepers at Walla Walla City Council and they’ll probably say Singer’s Chevron officially opened in May 2005.

In truth, it was a c-store almost 40 years in the making.

Singer did a stint in the Army and a spell at Standard Oil in Washington before he hired on at a Walla Walla Chevron service station in 1968. Business at the two-bay site was strictly automotive, the extent of its convenience store offerings being a vending machine stuffed with candy bars.

Singer worked there from 1968 to 1976 before purchasing it and continuing its life as a repair shop throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. 

“It was a good business for many years,” Singer said of the old shop. “Service stations are on the way out. They’re a thing of the past. Most people are just getting extended warranties and taking the cars back to the (dealers) to have them repaired. It’s a dwindling market.”

As some old-school repair shops have found profits come in morphing to a convenience store, it wasn’t difficult for Singer himself to switch gears and tear down the old service station to make way for a new 2,600-square-foot c-store.

Ample Opportunity

There are less than a dozen convenience stores in Walla Walla, but few, if any, can boast the 40-year marketing strategy Singer’s Chevron enjoyed leading up to its arrival. 

“It’s all word of mouth, basically since I’ve been here so many years,” Singer said of his promotional efforts and the years spent operating an automotive service shop in this town of 30,000.

The store has three MPDs, each offering four blends of fuel, including an E10 ethanol blend. What sets it apart, however, is the new building and its commitment to service. “We have a very clean place, and that makes a big difference,” Singer said. “It’s spotless. We get comments from customers all the time who say they’ve never seen a food mart this clean.”

As with many independent c-store operators, Singer doesn’t rely on voluminous data to gauge the popularity of a product or a shifting trend. Rather, his in-store offerings are uniquely tailored to the characteristics of Walla Walla and its surrounding communities. 

The in-store offerings at Singer’s Chevron include the standard fare, but a notable profit center is the self-branded deli where his wife, Loretta, works upwards of 12 hours a day cooking fresh meals for every daypart. The foodservice program offers baked items, nothing deep-fried, including chicken strips and nuggets, barbecue chicken, Buffalo wings, corn dogs, sandwiches and more.

“(Loretta) pretty much does the cooking all herself,” Singer said. “She’s just like a chef…likes to cook it her way at the right temperature.”

Singer’s deli counter display is all of 30 square feet, though the prep area consumes about 200 square feet. Customers piece their own meals together, and there’s also a hot dog stand with Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs so the West Coast natives can get a taste of Yankee Stadium, Singer said. “We have the only place in town to get Nathan’s hot dogs. Everybody loves them.”

Singer store recently added seating near the foodservice area to encourage more in-store traffic, Singer said, adding that the addition has “helped quite a bit.”

Maximizing Sales

Beyond foodservice other in-store categories are still a huge player in Singer’s profit game. Sales are about 60% inside and 40% at the pumps, but the margins are made in-store as they are at most convenience stores.

Singer’s Chevron is sitting in a prime location. It’s about smack in the middle of downtown Walla Walla, and just two blocks off a local highway. Next door is a business with 120 employees, as well as nearby offices for bankers, attorneys, the U.S. Post Office and the Army Corp of Engineers.

The town has three colleges and Washington’s largest state penitentiary, the latter employing almost 1,000 people. “That brings a lot of business,” Singer said, reporting that he has an entire section of energy drinks for college students, too. “I watch and see what’s going good. The college kids, you know how they are with the energy drinks.

“One kid came in and showed me a 32-ounce energy drink,” Singer said. “I said, ‘If you drink all of that, you’d better head for a hospital.’”

Across the street from Singer’s Chevron is a 1927 hotel that underwent a $25 million restoration in recent years. Walla Walla is renowned for its wine production, and the town has become a bourgeoning tourism spot for wine enthusiasts, offering a number of weekend wine festivals each year.

“I have one whole complete section for wine,” Singer said. “I get a lot of business from the hotel. The wine industry has helped a lot. On those weekends, customer volume is just unbelievable.”

In addition to local wines, stocking items like toothpaste and toothbrushes for hotel guests searching for late-night solutions has earned Singer’s Chevron a reputation as a useful stop. The hotel restaurant closes at 7 p.m. each night, so after-hours hotel guests are regular visitors to Singer’s deli.

Alongside Singer and his wife, there is another full-time employee and three part-time employees who see to the c-store’s 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. operating hours. “Everything is working out great,” Singer said. “Our business inside the store has doubled each year for three years. It just keeps growing.”

css.php