Independent Retailers can succeed amidst larger chains and regional players.

This article, authored by Impact 21’s Tom Newbould, was featured in the July 2021 edition of CSP Magazine.

Even before the first dedicated drive-up gas station opened in 1913 in Pittsburgh, the independent gas sales operator had been established. Be it a local hardware or general store that sold fuel from a single pump or the soon-to-be-obsolete blacksmith shop that sold gas in prepackaged 5-gallon containers, they were independent retailers selling fuel.

A lot has changed over the past 100 years, but the entrepreneurial spirit, drive and determination of the independent operator has not. It is not easy being an independent c-store operator competing with ever-growing larger chains and regional players.

These competitors often have many advantages over the independent operator: buying power, established loyalty programs, financial backing, advanced employee benefits, structured advertising programs and more. In many cases, the cards are stacked against the single-store and small-chain independents.

There are some
that small
operators can
take to “be”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are many successful independent operators, and, based on my more than 30 years of experience competing against, consulting for and even acquiring some indies, there are some clear paths that small operators can take to “be” successful.

Be Clean

One of the most important factors when consumers are deciding to turn right or left into competing c-stores is the overall cleanliness of the facility. As part of your standard operating procedures, multiple times a day, someone should be out in a safety vest, emptying the trash cans, filling washer fluid, picking up trash and ensuring that the dispensers and handles are clean.

Spend a little extra on the landscaping. Making sure the site is lit up at night is also vital; LED lights are a great investment, brighter and require less maintenance. Inside, clean restrooms are key. And if the site offers foodservice, that area needs a lot of attention too.

Be Something

Set your store apart from others. That can mean a lot of diff erent things. The site could have the largest craft-beer selection in town or sell bags of ice for 59 cents. Would unique take-home meals play in your neighborhood? Is delivery a differentiator?

The possibilities are endless, but “be something” to your customers.

Be Local

This is where being an independent operator is a real advantage. There are two very important factors to being local.

The first is community involvement. From sponsoring the sports programs for the local high school, letting Scouts sell cookies or popcorn in your parking lot, to joining the Chamber of Commerce and or Rotary Club, connections in the local community can make a huge difference in your business.

And second, buy local and support local vendors. That is something that the bigger players have trouble doing. Call out local products in signage and promotions.

Be Friendly

The labor market is very tight, but that is not an excuse for hiring just any warm body. Be diligent in your pursuit of the best front-line workers. Set expectations on your level of quality customer service and ensure that everyone is living by it. Developing a training program for new employees goes a long way in driving consistency.

Be Smart

There are many industry resources for education. Regardless of position, it is well worth the time, money and effort to attend some type of industry training. Understanding what is happening in the industry is vital, as well. Read CSP each month, sign up for e-newsletters, join NACS, attend its annual trade show.

The c-store industry is unlike any other, with regular best-practice sharing and showing-off innovations.

Be Creative

Developing a loyalty program for an independent operator is tough. There are oil company and other group programs that you can join for a small investment. But there are other ways to create your own marketing buzz. Advertise specials on social media or embrace good old-fashioned marketing. Have a weekly Wacky Wednesday promotion, offering gas 10 cents off per gallon, fountain drinks for 29 cents or…fill in the blank!

Larger retailers are increasingly making their ways into smaller markets. Don’t let the competitors crush you; always “be ready.”

Tom Newbould

Tom Newbould

Senior Principal Consultant

Tom Newbould has an incredible knowledge of the ever-changing landscape of the retail markets and has worn many hats throughout his 30 plus year career. A true expert in the c-stores, travel centers, and truckstop industry.

Read more about Tom here.