Dashing Stores

Attractive remodeling blueprint ups ante on Dash In’s customer experience level
Dash In’s redesign

LAPLATA, Md. --Blackie Wills might not mind if his convenience-store chain, Dash In Food Stores, adopted a new retail motto: Dash in and stay awhile.

There’s no denying that a growing number of Dash In locations are becoming increasingly warm and inviting—all part of an ongoing and ambitious $2.5 million to $3 million store remodeling project.

And just like the motto says, when customers feel comfortable, they tend to stay longer and spend more. That’s the goal at the chain of 65 existing Dash In stores located in Delaware, Virginia and Maryland. The LaPlata, Md.-based company is earmarking about $75,000 to $100,000 per store to reach a higher level of customer satisfaction, Wills said.

“We see this as an investment in the brand [that] provides us the ability to change customer perceptions,” Wills, director of real estate and development for The Wills Group Inc., told Convenience Store Products. “Customers now tend to come into the remodeled stores and comment, ‘This is a Dash In?’ ”

About five years ago, Wills began imagining a new look, one that would involve shifting from metal to wood/millwork interior designs and fixtures, and how it could serve as a cosmetic rejuvenation for outdated store formats. As the company adds new stores and remodels existing ones, customers see a chain that’s starting to resemble the look of the leaders in other retail channels, such as fast-casual, Wills said. Prompting the decision to remodel was the chain’s shift to made-to-order foodservice fare instead of its previous hot-hold offerings.

This store vision took shape in 2010 when Dash In went on a retail asset-purchasing spree, snatching up 1,000-square-feet legacy snack shop stores from both Shell and Exxon. Rather than retrofit, Dash In opted for complete raze and rebuilds. The company is on target to add six to 10 new stores per year over the next several years.

“The interiors are being transformed—we wanted to shed the former look,” Wills said. “The shift to made-to-order was a major factor, and I don’t think we could have made this switch and kept the former look. It was important to create a newer, better kind of in-store experience for customers.”

Wood-Be Success Story

Integrating pre-engineered cabinet fixtures with the unique combination of aesthetic appeal and durability was top of mind with Dash In.

Wills scouted for and found the right partner to tackle the job in Richmond, Va.-based Merchants Fixture, which has National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certification.

“We first talked to Merchants Fixture in May of 2014, and they have since done seven stores. They will remodel another nine into next year,” Wills said. “Over the next five years, we plan to remodel 40 stores.” Wills appreciated Merchants Fixture’s expertise with millwork and their creation of shop drawings.

When the conversion was made, not only did Dash In opt for what was already higher-quality wood-based millwork, but they splurged on the “Cadillac” of fixtures in the form of Cambria stone countertops, “creating a richer customer experience,” he said.

A store’s success can hinge on the in-store design plan, as the costs of cabinets make up the largest percentage of all in-store costs—not including POS—both in new construction and re-modeled stores, said George Wright, president of Merchants Fixture.

Wills liked the teamwork and ongoing communication Merchants brought to the table. “The first store Merchants did for us, we did a walkthrough and performed tweaks to the millwork package. We had shelving designed one way—but we elicited some feedback and incorporated some changes,” Wills said.

Store downtime at Dash In during the conversions was minimal as Merchants was able to “work in stages to keep stores open all the time—even working off-hours,” Wright said. “This effort can take two weeks if you have to do it in stages rather than full-on.”

Wills wasn’t able to quantify how this initiative translates to additional sales or additional foot traffic in stores, but predicts those results will be more readily tracked with each passing fiscal quarter.