Design of the Times

Savvy c-store operators know that everything in a store should be contributing to sales, including displays and fixtures.

More retailers are coming to realize that display and fixture design can, if done right, provide the flexibility needed to highlight food offerings as well as dry goods products and keep the sales space fresh, interesting and utilitarian.

As economic times have gotten tougher, c-store operators have placed more emphasis on food, with its generally higher margin. One  manufacturer noted, “convenience stores are becoming more like restaurants, a quick-serve or fast-food type of environment.” Regulatory agencies are responding, with more frequent inspections and closer enforcement due to the proliferation of fresh foods.

Doubling Grab and Go
Amer Hawatmeh, president of five-store St. George Oil Co. in St. Louis, said he and his management team tested a three-foot Hot Stuff display unit for pizza with preset temperature controls, and they have been “extremely impressed with it,” he said. The stores operate under the Coast to Coast banner.

“One of the biggest problems with hot displays is that you get some that will either dry out or even ruin the food,” Hawatmeh explained. “On top of that, it may cost you a fortune to buy it. This one is amazing in the way you program and control its heat, the way it keeps moisture inside the box. And, above all, it keeps things affordable. The cost of this thing is one-third of everybody else’s price.”

St. George began testing the units in May. Its menu includes five varieties of chicken wings and taquitos to go along with pizza.

Hawatmeh has had many disappointing experiences with display units in the past. That’s why he is glad to have formed a good working relationship with a manufacturer nearby in St. Louis. “They called me and said, ‘We want you to test something before we roll it out to 7-Eleven.’ When I learned it was a holding display cabinet. I thought it would be another hunk of junk,” he said. “But they really did their homework. We put it in and I’ll tell you, forget about my liking it—my customers like it.”

A lot of planning went into the new display units. Counters are built specifically to accommodate the design of the units. “You put the electrical in, they drop the counter in, you put the equipment on top—it’s a pretty easy setup,” Hawatmeh said. “The only real cost you have is bringing the electrical wiring over.”

St. George staffers astutely use the display units to help spark take-out sales. “We did a grab-and-go set up right next to the front counter. Customers can see the wings, they see the pizza, the taquitos and sandwiches, and it’s enticing,” Hawatmeh said. “To complement food sales, we market grab-and-go items right next to the displays.”

The results have been strong. “We have literally doubled the sales of our grab-and-go pizza,” Hawatmeh reported. “I attribute the sales increase to the fact that people can now see a whole pizza sitting there in the display unit. Subconsciously, it pushes all the right buttons in the person. Then we brought in the chicken wings and all that.”

Looking for Flexibility
Coast to Coast stores are located in urban neighborhoods, where competition is not as harsh. When the chain decided to add chicken wings to the menu, it began with an initial order of 10 cases of precooked product, to be prepared in convection oven.

“We went through all 10 cases in three days,” Hawatmeh said. “One day no one even knew we had the stuff, but then it took off in an instant. People weren’t coming in for three or four pieces; they were buying 25- and 50-piece portions. I haven’t seen excitement like that in a very long time in our industry, and I’ve been in this industry literally all of my life.”

The success of his heated display has resulted in giving Hawatmeh a promising outlook in the face of the ongoing recession. “With all the things that are going wrong in our world, something like this kind of makes you feel good, like maybe it’s not all so bad,” he said.

At least one manufacturer of store fixtures and displays is offering retailers units with a framework that features moveable decor panels, so they can change the design easily and quickly, without having to scrap the entire unit. On trend, operators are asking for ones made with metal in the interests of longevity, but they also want the flexibility to update their interiors from time to time.

“Retailers are looking for more flexibility, so they can change seamlessly when the market changes, whether it’s an endcap or standard cabinetry,” according to one manufacturer. “Operators want to have adjustable shelving with multiple points of merchandising, but at the same or less cost than the old standard fixtures. That’s the real challenge.”

One answer has been to build the units as lightweight as possible in order to save on material. This was a major issue until about a year ago. It has become less of an issue because of economics: as the economy went south and demand for material went down, costs dropped by as much as 10% to 15%.

Lighting Design, Flexibility
Part of the display design for the 327-unit Stewart’s Shops chain based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., includes the way management lights them. According to Tom Mailey, the chain’s marketing manager, Stewart’s continues to experiment with a variety of lighting solutions throughout the store, and gives unit managers lots of latitude in making the final call.

“We are now using LEDs outside, and we’ve gone to some LED gas signs,” Mailey said. “We’re using them in the coolers, too. First of all, it’s greener, and it does a great job inside the coolers on the products.”

LED lighting emits only a few frequencies of light, giving off what some describe as a “specific, pure color.” Cooler sections in Stewart’s stores can range from eight-door sets to as many as 20 doors. “Our shops are like snowflakes,” Mailey said. “No two are alike.”

Executives are putting a variety of lighting systems in place to see how they affect visibility and highlight products on the sales floor.

“We tend to light over products, and the (aisles) pick up the light from there,” Mailey said. “But we orient our lighting, in part, over the counter where we have food to go and things. We’re experimenting with different types of lights for that, so we don’t have standard procedures with that yet.”

Mailey pointed out that while Stewart’s has had success with LEDs in the coolers, “I don’t know that we’ve had the same success using the same LEDs out on the floor. That’s where the experimenting comes in,” he said. “We are eliminating various types of lighting as we experiment, but it’s a conscious effort to light the products.”

He also draws no distinction between food and dry goods when it comes to lighting.

Stewart’s concept calls for the sort of latitude in design that managers enjoy. “That in-shop marketing approach is going to vary from manager to manager. We give them that flexibility because they know their neighborhoods best,” Mailey said.

What managers choose often depends greatly on the competition. “Some of our shops are the grocery store for the neighborhood, so the displays are going to be different from the shop that is predominantly a coffee and a food-to-go store, or a beverage store,” Mailey said.

That’s the sort of flexibility that operators are increasingly demanding and putting to good use, as they scramble for every possible advantage. CSD

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