Experience the Evolution

Cultural anthropologist explores how to build on the c-store identity

PHOENIX -- What does your brand mean to shoppers? What do your stores say about your company? What about your product mix?

Without the answers to these questions, retailers will never understand how shoppers behave in their stores, let alone be able to manipulate their stores and sets to promote certain kinds of behavior.

“How you create a better experience is a key part of the puzzle,” said Michael Powell, cultural anthropologist for Shook Kelley, Los Angeles, at CSP’s Shopper Insights Forum held late last year.

Powell shared with attendees ways for c-stores to not only better connect with existing shoppers, but also evolve to stay relevant to changing consumer demands.

Using Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s as an example, Powell cited the sleight-of-hand the fast-food chain accomplished on a major scale that kept it grounded in its core products of hamburgers, while evolving its visual look and messaging to evoke a more health-conscious, contemporary feel.

“McDonald’s did not totally move away from its roots, but expanded on that perception,” Powell said. “That’s the kind of thing c-stores need to be working on.”

Brand messaging involves everything from building design to product selection. Much in the same way libraries have “cues” in long study tables and endless shelves of books, or pubs have with bar tables and pint glasses, individual elements assembled in a c-store may evoke an experience that may sell more merchandise, or allow a customer to trust a new category such as foodservice.

Part of the goal in creating a new environment is to encourage the behaviors that the visual cues evoke. “We know how people act in a library,” Powell said. “And we know how people act in a pub.”

Having worked with Louisville, Ky.- based Thorntons Inc., Powell said one of the main challenges the industry has is building on—not losing—its identity as a c-store, and also becoming something more. “It’s about perception and expectations that shoppers have before they step inside the door,” Powell said. “Driving down the street, you see hundreds of buildings, and the c-store is such a common and expected form.”

The way Thorntons changed that iconic image was to develop a “box within a box” design, with the foodservice side of its identity a larger, more graphically interesting “box” juxtaposed with a more traditional c-store frame.

“We thought about how we could change up expectations before the consumer even steps inside,” he said. “When you walk in, you recognize that the two boxes offer different experiences.”

Another important ingredient in the brand messaging is making communication clear and easily understood. C-stores frequently are cluttered with messages, with fully stocked shelves, danglers, shippers and a host of other elements that create visual chaos.

“From the entrance, you want the customer to look left or right and just notice two or three things,” he said. “You’re not trying to inundate people with too many messages. It’s a common problem.”

How does a retailer pick the right messages?

It’s about “what you’re good at, inherent assets, market opportunities. Who are you attracting? What are they coming in for? Do you want to build a new audience? Does it overlap with what you own?” Powell said.

And it’s more than just design. “It has to be solved with a strategic process,” he said. “The retailer has to come to grips with what they’re trying to sell. They can only do a couple of things really well.”