So What’s the Difference?

Three indie operators find their niche

Most retailers sell the same candy bars, bags of chips and bottles of soda, so how are you differentiating your store from the competitor across the street? The following operators have found unique merchandising and marketing niches to separate themselves in the eyes of the consumer. Take note, and consider how you can break away from the pack.

Fishing for New Business

Mark Gil’s customers don’t fret much about rainstorms following a car wash at his station. And local fishermen don’t worry about big-box retailers being fresh out of bait.

Gil, owner of a 1,800-square-foot BP station in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, has viable solutions for both concerns. At his full-service, 60-foot-long tunnel wash, Gil offers a “Five-Day Clean Car Guarantee,” with which customers can return within five days of their last wash for a freebie—no questions asked. The offer holds for one of the two premium (he offers three) wash packages. With the top-of-the-line Ultra Wash at $14, value isn’t lost on his car-wash customers.

“If a customer drives through a puddle, or if it rains the next day, this gives them a nice comfort level,” Gil says. “Customers are trained to come back by the fifth day for a free wash, and then we start the selling process all over again.”

The deal motivates regular wash customers to select one of the two upper tiers 45% to 51% of the time, rather than the basic package, he says.

Being an opportunist doesn’t stop there: Gil now sells fishing bait. “We had never sold it, but the spring of 2012 was so warm in Chicago that people began fishing in March,” he explains.

A nearby Walmart had normally been the go-to place for fresh bait, but it never occurred to managers there to stock bait in March, says Gil. He filled the void: “Even though we were not in the bait business, we saw an opportunity, and more people switched to us.”

Customers who buy bait usually also buy bagged ice, packaged beverages and sunscreen—filling the market basket all the more.

You Try, You Buy

When it comes to foodservice, why set limitations? Pat Determan, owner of Lyons Filling Station in Clinton, Iowa, opts to take foodservice outside his four walls when the weather cooperates for built-in marketing of his extensive food offering.

Firing up his Green Egg and Primo grills, Determan cooks out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with grilled fare accompanied by various sides. “The barbecue smoke rolls down the street, people see it and it draws them in,” he says.

Lyons Filling Station foodservice distinguishes itself via its breadth and depth of home-style offerings. In-store specials include Dog Day Monday—featuring brats, dogs and Cheddar and polish sausages—and Taco Tuesdays.

Specials involving burgers and chicken breast on Wednesdays move more than 200 sandwiches. Homemade pizza by the slice is served up on Thursday, while pork loin gets the spotlight on Fridays.

The momentum does not let up on the weekends, when Determan offers a chili-dog special on Saturdays and “Homemade Sunday Breakfast,” which consists of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage and toast for $3.75. On his griddle, it’s about a little extra elbow grease in the name of quality: He cracks only fresh eggs rather than processed bulk eggs, and the quality of the meal rings true, he says.

“It was like, boom: The ring on Sunday increased $75. I also went from averaging 11 to 12 foodservice items on Sundays to 24 items,” he says. Setting the tone for the food is Determan’s homespun branding, Det’s Diner.

The name was inspired by his longtime nickname, and integrated into the signage is his favorite expression: “It’s All Good.” These nuances add a personal flavor to the program that he believes keeps people coming back.

Naming Rights

Retailer Steve Strittmater is accustomed to thinking on his feet. In 1991, his two Kwik Shop stores needed a new trademark when a regional grocer acquired the rights to the existing one. Strittmater added the word “Go” to the end of his Cambridge, Ill.-based stores and was off and running.

Inventiveness doesn’t stop there. At Kwik Shop & Go stores (one branded Phillips, the other BP), Strittmater has concocted a host of retail merchandising themes centered around the following elements: Chicago Days, Dollar Days, 1960 and 1970 Days, and Customer Appreciation Days.

In each of these weeklong promotions executed once a year, customers receive discounts on snacks, foods and drinks. “On Appreciation Days we offer a complete meal for $4,” says Strittmater, who has a full line of foodservice items including thin-crust and deep-dish pizza, full- and half-slab ribs, grilled rib-eye steak, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, burgers, broasted chicken, deli meats, chocolate malts and hand-dipped ice cream.

During Dollar Days, all foodservice, beverage and snack items are a buck. “So a bag of Frito-Lay chips that sells for $1.49 is $1—it’s an attractive value,” he says. On 1960 and 1970 Days, select products are priced at 60 and 70 cents. When Chicago Days comes around, discounts are given on deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs with a drink and chips.

To separate his pizza program from that of his competitors, Strittmater commits to quality cheeses and meats, with ingredients sourced from Chicago-based Battaglia Distributing and Buffalo, N.Y.-based Rich’s. “We use only 100% mozzarella and 100% Cheddar, with no blending or skim milk. Our meats have no fillers,” he says.

Strittmater also is known for hand-dipped ice cream and malts. His Taylor Soft Serve machine churns out an array of vanilla and chocolate twists and shakes, with a 20-ounce shake the most popular variety. Banana splits and sundaes are also made regularly.

“I just try and stay one cut above the competition the best way I can.”