How can we redefine convenience in Indian Country?
Convenience stores have played a major role in Tribal economies over the years. It’s an industry that a lot of tribes have and have remained tried and true. However, the C store industry as a whole is behind the curve compared to some of the food service entities and how they’ve pivoted during the pandemic. There’s an extreme opportunity and Tribes should start looking through a new lens and really answering the question, how can we redefine convenience in Indian Country?
We do more than help Tribes develop C stores, we have them move into new concepts that are evolving to better serve the community. Our approach is to look at it from a design perspective and ask, What’s the best design to have the best financial impact for the Tribe? This is important because architects can make the building look pretty but they’re not good at designing a business model. At the end of the day the goal is to not have a prettier facility – although that’s a bonus– the goal is to really strategically think through the operations of the business to better understand where the opportunities are. We develop C stores in two stages. First, we produce feasibility studies so that the Tribe can understand what the potential opportunity is. In this, we map out a strategy for them specifically and tailored to that Tribe because each Tribe has its own tax advantages, depending on where the property is. We then engage in a four-month design and planning process before anything goes to the architect.
What trends are we seeing in C-Stores post-pandemic?
Some food service entities have pivoted during the pandemic, but convenience stores really haven’t done a good job adapting. I think in the next five years the older C store concepts need to become modernized, there are so many ways this industry is growing but right now, Tribes can’t address those needs with the facilities they have.
On this side of the pandemic, what we’re seeing is people really enjoy the drive-thru. I think the drive-thru is being used more than it ever has before. I know around me I’ve seen a lot of concepts that are not drive-thru concepts that are opening stores with drive-thrus. So we see this big commitment within, whether it be, the food industry or the convenience industry, getting things to people fast. Tribes can’t address those needs with the facilities that they currently have, so coming in and performing an assessment and looking at what the operations look like, but also, more importantly, where the opportunities are for growth and expansion is critical.
“I think that’s going to be the big push over the next five years – taking these older C-store concepts and modernizing them for really this post-COVID era that we’re in”
How do you differentiate between a C-store and others?
1. Minimal C-Store: Tribes have fuel pumps and a temporary small building, basically like a smoke shop. So it accepts cash for the gas and sells tobacco. You’ve probably seen this at the grocery outlets.
2. Island market or an island marketer: Tribes have gas pumps and a C store, but it’s a small C store – somewhere ~2,000 square feet – that actually fits underneath your gas canopy. These are very successful, but it limits what you can sell.
3. Separated C-Store: Lastly, there is a concept where the C store is now separated from the gas pumps. These can also be about 2,000 square feet, but there’s an opportunity to really grow.
I think a travel center tends to lend itself to what Indian country has to offer a bigger footprint and just really thinking about meeting the traveler’s needs as well. I think travel centers are the next step up from the C store. A travel center is meeting the needs of a traveler but also the community by offering:
• Larger and cleaner restrooms
• Larger spaces to have engagement with people over a longer period of time
• Place to lounge
• Place to get food
• Meeting the needs of diesel customers
What should Tribes do to elevate the customer experience?
Often times customers don’t realize things like the spacing between the dispensers or the width of the parking spaces. They go into a store and they realize, wow, it’s easier to navigate this store. Why do I like the store? But they don’t know why and it’s because of what we call “soft touches.” Soft touches can be things like the spacing between the dispensers or we give the extra two and a half feet per parking space. They feel, that even though it’s busy and people are moving in and out, they don’t feel like we’re on top of each other. Some things to consider:
- Higher ceilings create the sense of having more room
- LED lighting
- Lights within the cooler doors to light up the products
- Extra spacing between dispensers
- Extra space between parking spaces
- Cash register layout
- Placement of coolers and bathrooms towards the back to send the customer through the store
How do you move from a C-Store to a Market?
It’s a tall order but we help convenience stores do this all the time. We help you get on the path of discovery on how to do things differently by looking at remodeling and the physical aspects. The movement to a market concept benefits both communities and embraces travelers. In any of the new assessments and the redevelopments that we’re doing, we are really trying to get to more of a market concept instead of a C-store concept. People associate C-store with older, less facilities – it’s really just kind of getting gas and getting out. But the new markets are really designed to compete within the food space.For example, the C-store in my mind is where I don’t want to go get food. I only get food if I have to. But a market, I’m excited to go get food at a market because a market, has a commitment to preparing fresh food and having a strong offering. We’re trying to do more within that space than just convenience.
• Fresh food – A market concept with fresh food communicates a different level of cleanliness and standards to deliver to the consumer. The market concept is a commitment to fresh food, exposed kitchens, and sometimes two food concepts in one market. One food concept could be a branded concept (such as a franchise) that helps you get there faster because people recognize what the brand offers. But I always recommend having your own proprietary high-quality food option as well. Fresh food and grab-and-go food will raise average ticket prices, benefiting your operations.
• App Delivery – Customers desire the option to order something from the C-store app. Most tribes right now that we work with don’t have the capability to have someone order something from the C store app or that app doesn’t exist.
• Curbside – The execution of curbside pickup or food locker execution and even ordering at the pump and have it brought out to you.
• Drive-thru – People really enjoy the drive thru and it’s being used more than it ever has before. In an effort for a faster and convenient delivery of service, we want to put in a drive thru at your fresh market. Not only do we want to offer food through it, but we want to execute everything off the drive through.
• Self checkout – Having a self-checkout lane for those that like to use self check out is a good option and can help get people in and on their way. Grand and go technology, where a consumer can check in with their phone and grab things off the shelf and leave, similar to what Amazon is doing in their stores.
Case Study : Southern California Tribal adds Franchise to C-Store
We recently did a store in Southern California and we helped them get a Qdoba. And if you don’t know Qdoba it’s the franchise version of Chipotle in a lot of ways. As soon as you make that decision, that branded decision, it starts beginning to impact design and redevelopment because you’ve got to meet their standards. It’s going to be a blessing for the tribe, too, because, you know their their franchise requirements and processes could help a Tribe who hasn’t been in food service before.
What’s the biggest opportunity for Tribes?
The biggest opportunity for Indian Country is to really be unbranded. But unbranded doesn’t mean not having a brand and I think that’s the gap that we’re seeing in Indian Country is when we say unbranded, you still have to have a brand, you have to spend money, you have to spend time, you have to spend resources really doing brand development.
That’s where we come in, we are helping tribes do brand development. It’s great because it’s a great opportunity to really think about who you are, what you want to do, and what your brand promises to your consumer. The problem with being tied to an oil company is typically you sign a ten year contract of supply from that provider, but you’re not able to get the best fuel pricing on the street. That branded oil company used to have value. But we’re seeing that erode and it leaves an opportunity for a tribe to really create its own brand, to not be tied to that contract, to go out and price shop its fuel prices.
Part of the rebranding exercise that we do with leadership and the C-store team is to really think about how can we have a bigger impact on our community. So one way is offering more goods and services, but another way is finding ways to engage with the community in a stronger way. If someone wants to have a community car wash, we actually provide a space and engage the community for that. Community engagement and sponsorship by working with local sports teams, little league kids, girl scout cookies, and food trucks that park, or support local entrepreneurship.
What can Tribes do now to benefit future generations?
We’ve seen everything when it comes to convenience stores in Indian Country, things that have worked really well, things that haven’t worked really well, and everything in between. We believe the first step is for us to help you identify opportunities.
Even if you’re profitable what are the other areas of growth that you’re missing out on? If you’re driving a lot of people for gas and you’re making a profit on gas, you’ve got a sovereign advantage on gas, and you’re driving a lot of sales there, that’s great. But you might still be missing out on an opportunity again to raise that average ticket sale. What other things could you’ve already got the captive audience there? They’re buying fuel, what are the other things that they could be buying and spending with you? So looking at it from that perspective.
Finally, looking at it from a community engagement piece, it can be a foundation for growing your tribal economy and not just as the C store itself, but again, providing opportunities within that space. You have a lot of traffic that you’re driving there, how can you use this as an opportunity to grow your economy on a larger scale and even include your community members and entrepreneurs?
I hope this gave you insight into the opportunities for redevelopment of stores and the development of fresh markets on your Tribal land that will benefit your economy for future generations.