CHICAGO— Tim Young is always ready to pivot when it comes to tweaking his mix of general merchandise categories. In late 2020, the category manager, central store, of FiveStar Food Mart, a chain of 80 stores owned by Newcomb Oil Co., Bardstown, Ky., saw a key pillar of the chain’s automotive set hit the road. RacePro products were no longer available at FiveStar stores. “We have quarreled with [wholesale-distributor] Core-Mark International to chart our next steps. Luckily, we’ve filled the void through a partnership with Lucas Oil,” says Young. “Much of 2021 meant looking at general merchandise plan-grams more on a weekly basis than bi-weekly or monthly.”
Meanwhile, 375 miles northeast of FiveStar, Peter Kempton Jr. was taking advantage of an opportunity to rejuvenate the health and beauty care department of Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America, operating TA, TA Express and Petro Stopping Center stores. Chains.
The category manager, central store, for TA, which operates 487 stores, said cold/flu, sinus, allergy medicine and other health-related segments died on the vine in 2020 when people sheltered in place. It rebounded in 2021.
“We gave more space to vitamins and other wellness and immunity-boosting products last year, like Emergen-C, all knowing that people were taking their health into their own hands. We actually created a dedicated wellness center which was more pronounced. It included CBD gummies, Pedialyte, electrolytes and more,” says Kempton.
On the beauty side, TA/Petro has seen more and more people step up their social interactions. In response, the chain has expanded its men’s specialty grooming section with items from Duke Cannon Supply Co. Grooming supplies at convenience stores grew 23% in 2021, according to data firm IRI, Chicago.
“We also put more stock in the elbow, back and knee pads, as well as the compression socks. It’s to better serve our on-the-road trucking customers,” says Kempton. “The bottom line: we always ask ourselves what we can do differently.”
Along with the change in the health and beauty care segment, some necessary adjustments were made to the overall TA/Petro product line, as all fringe segments had to be moved or replaced. Kempton and his team refined what he calls “promotional” bits that consisted of confectionery, bakery and savory snack items. They have been moved to other areas, both on the ground and online.
Within the general merchandise category, most segments experienced both dollar and volume growth. For the 52-week period ending December 26, 2021, and reflecting total convenience store activity in the United States, the decisions to become more optimistic in the placement of internal painkillers and vitamins made sense; both saw double-digit growth, with painkillers at 10.6% dollar expansion and vitamins at 16.3%, according to IRI.
The same happened with automotive fluids/antifreeze, which saw dollars rise 14.9% over the time of year, IRI reported.
Lucas Oil’s merchandising partnership in FiveStar Food Stores has now blossomed to achieve double-digit dollar sales growth by the end of 2021 and into 2022, Young says. But it took time. Growing pains are to be expected when a new car brand replaces the one that has earned customer loyalty.
“We had been aggressively engaging in automotive before COVID-19. We were pretty deep into RacePro, so when it disappeared we faced three empty shelves of octane boosters, fuel system cleaners, fuel and more,” says Young. “We rushed to put this section back together. For an entirely new portfolio of brands, it takes patience. I allow eight weeks for a new brand or SKU to establish.
Automotive is vital to most operators, who view it as a general merchandise category driver in various segments including motor oil, octane boosters and air fresheners. These items have always been vital, but bottomed out during COVID-19 when fewer people were on the road.
FiveStar has had commercial success with several other segments. In 2020, it was games, puzzles and fishing rods. In 2021, it integrated Magnum massage guns into stores in partnership with Novelty Inc.
During the pandemic, pet adoption has increased dramatically. So it was obvious to expand into pet treats (22% growth in convenience stores in 2021) and other pet accessory products, which FiveStar did. “It was a far cry from the previous year when we sold very little [pet accessories].”
Vigilance to monitor the category not only means staying on top of changing consumer trends, but it requires preparation for the myriad instances of supply chain disruption.
Summarizing the latter, Young says, “You can’t take anything for granted. We need to continue to have an ongoing dialogue with these vendors and ask them, “Do you foresee an issue that could change the world on us again? And it’s not just the finished products but the packaging. The glue that keeps a bag sealed may be out of stock at the warehouse. We’ll ask, “How is it so hard to get a component that seems so easy to get?” ” It’s not.”
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