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Business Observer Friday, May 1, 2015 5 years ago

Chain reaction

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Wawa spares no detail when it comes to designing its convenience stores. This helps explain why it has developed a cult-like following of raving fans.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Taking a stroll around a Wawa convenience store with Carol Jensen gives you a sense for how different the chain is from its competitors. Wawa competes with more than just 7-Eleven or RaceTrac, says Jensen, Wawa's chief brand and marketing officer. “We compete on share of stomach and share of wallets,” she says. Starbucks, Subway and even grocery stores should watch out for Wawa.

Here's why:

 

 
Roomy parking
Wawa stores are generous with parking. For example, there are 85 parking spaces for the new Fort Myers store on Colonial Boulevard. Also, each parking space is wider so that customers won't have to squeeze into a tiny spot, even with a larger vehicle.
Customers can get what they need at a Wawa store in four minutes, says CEO Chris Gheysens. “It's about getting in and out quickly,” Gheysens says while on a visit to open stores in Fort Myers. He knows: the company measured the steps it takes for a customer to get from the gas pump and into the store.

 

 
The Wawa brand
Wawa started its corporate life selling dairy products at Pennsylvania stores, and that tradition continues today. “We pasteurize our own milk and produce our own teas, lemonades and fruit drinks,” Jensen says. She estimates about 40% of store sales are Wawa-branded items.

 

 
Cheaper gas
Wawa gasoline will be among the lowest in the region. For example, the chain opened April 23 in Fort Myers with gasoline priced at $2.39 per gallon, 20 cents less than the competition that day. Company wide, Wawa sells 1 billion gallons of gas a year, or 1.7% of all the fuel sold in the U.S.
There's an extra five feet between pumps to give customers the feeling of roominess. In addition, the pumps are strategically aligned so that customers can see the store's large clutter-free windows and attract them inside to spend money on higher-margin items such as freshly prepared food. In Florida stores, Wawa installed outdoor seating to give customers who are not familiar with Wawa a visual clue from the pumps that there's food inside.

 

 
Gourmet coffee
Wawa sells about 190 million cups of coffee a year, or about six cups per second. That includes espressos, lattes and cappuccinos. “We also have a built-to-order milkshake program,” Jensen adds. Baskets with Wawa-branded coffees give the store an upscale market feel. The company is considering a darker Cuban-style roast for Florida, but it's careful about catering to regional tastes.

 

 
No-fee ATM
Wawa's ATM machines don't charge customers fees for cash withdrawals. Wawa estimates that the company saves customers $75 million in ATM surcharges annually.

 

 
Made-to-order hoagies
You won't find roller-grill hotdogs at Wawa. Instead, you can get a made-to-order hoagie sandwich from employees in the kitchen at the front and center of each store. “All of our hoagie rolls are baked in house,” Jensen says. There's a baking oven in the back of the store that churns out fresh sandwich rolls. Wawa's 680 stores now sell more than 70 million hoagies a year, which if aligned end-to-end would equal to the length of Fort Myers Beach 1,400 times, the company calculated.

And Wawa is always testing new ideas for its menu, which now also includes quesadillas and wraps. “Rice and beans is something we're testing right now,” says Jensen.
Cold beer here

Florida allows beer sales at convenience stores, so you'll find walk-in coolers at new Wawa stores around the state. Wawa stores in Virginia also sell beer, Jensen says.

 

 
Cold beer here
Florida allows beer sales at convenience stores, so you'll find walk-in coolers at new Wawa stores around the state. Wawa stores in Virginia also sell beer, Jensen says.

 

 
Technology boost
Digital screens over the kitchen at the center of the store tell customer what specials are available. “As you look at the kitchen, it's the heart of our store,” Jensen says. Customers can then order their food on a touch-screen machine that immediately tell the cooks how to prepare the food, speeding up the sandwich-making process and reducing mistakes. “We engineered an assembly line process,” says Gheysens. Each store has three to four cash registers strategically placed around the store to keep lines short, especially during the mealtime rush.

 

 
Fresh food
Each store has a fresh-food manager who reports to the store manager. The fresh-food manager is responsible for all fresh-food items, from sandwiches to smoothies. The store offers more fresh food than its rivals, with rows of apples in the cooler and bananas on a 6-foot display. “We sell a lot of bananas,” Jensen says. Wawa measures bananas on a scale of one to seven to determine ripeness. Bananas that become too ripe for the stand go into Wawa smoothies because of their higher sugar content.

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