Understanding Wawa’s Impact on Convenience Stores

JohnNewBy John Lofstock, Editor

There was a time not all that long ago when convenience store employees and customers were looked down upon by the mainstream media and even those in the local community who viewed c-stores as unsafe and overpriced. But for the past two decades the industry has taken great lengths to renovate its image with new stores, better lighting, improved retail programs and competitive pricing.

In one generation, the industry has evolved to the point where it has become a preferred destination for fresh made-to-order foods, an employer of choice and a trustworthy partner in the community. This was hardly an accident. Through the hard work of top quartile chains like Wawa, Sheetz, QuikTrip, Rutter’s and too many others to list here, convenience stores are the social center for a new generation of Americans that feel as comfortable in a c-store as their parents did at a supermarket a decade ago.

The NPD Group reported that Millennials currently account for 30% of c-store customers, and their importance to the channel is on the rise. While this group’s sheer size is driving a significant percentage of c-store traffic, it can’t be taken for granted that Millennials will adopt the same c-store habits as their boomer parents and grandparents. In fact, this generation is more open to redefining the convenience purchase occasion than any other—making it even more important to stay on top of their distinct behaviors and attitudes.

This is where Wawa excels. Since it opened its doors in 1964, Wawa has had one clear, distinct mission: take care of employees so they can take care of the customers. What began as an ideology exactly 50 years ago has blossomed into the only way the company knows how to do business, and many others—or at least the smart ones—have followed suit.

Redefining Convenience
As I wrote this month’s cover story on Wawa’s 50th anniversary, I went back through my archives to view some old interviews I did with Dick Wood and Howard Stoeckel in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. What struck me was, that despite the years in between interviews, the message was same: Stay true to your values and serve those that serve you best.
Nothing has changed at Wawa in that regard.

Stoeckel, the first non-Wood family member to head Wawa, told me in 2004 that the company evolved into prominence through persistence and by learning from past mistakes. For example, during the early 1990’s, when co-branding was regarded as the next great retail trend, Wawa experimented with the concept rather briefly.

The problem was the concepts failed to offer consistency because they could not be offered in all locations. “It put us in a difficult position because we preached consistency to our customers, but in these sites we were failing to offer it,” Stoeckel said. “Finally, our customers began saying to us, ‘Do what you do best.'”

Like most of its other critical decisions, the move paid off, and Wawa now operates a food program that is the envy of the industry.

This is significant because employees and customers have taken notice that Wawa dares to be innovative and refuses to be simply another me-too convenience store company. It is a culture that serves the company well.

But at the end of the day, Wawa’s commitment to employees is the foundation that supports the entire company. “All of our success is a testament to our associates and their hard work,” Stoeckel told me in 2004.

“From the very top of our organization, we have always emphasized that our associates come first,” Wawa’s current president and CEO Chris Gheysens told me last month.

That’s the same message a decade apart. If there is one thing chains can learn from Wawa this month, I hope this message is at the top of the list.

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