iSEE’s co-founder investigates why millennials are investing in long-terms careers in convenience

By Joe Vonder Haar

As cited frequently in the pages of CSP, the convenience-store industry and all of retailing is going through an unprecedented period of disruption as online, delivery and even robotic technology worms its way into some of the long-standing traditions of customer service.

Its effect on brick-and-mortar retail has been easy to see. TDLinx data shows that in 2017 (the most recent data available), the number of U.S. retail outlets dropped by more than 2,000 units. C-stores, however, were one of only two channels that bucked this trend, adding a net of 493 stores that year. The other channel that saw growth was dollar stores, up by 1,500 outlets.

So what drives consumers to embrace some retail channels over others?

Well, the University of Dayton in Ohio taught me that the science of economics is the study of the allocation of limited resources to unlimited human wants. We can apply this macroeconomic theory to personal, rational decisions about where we invest limited personal resources. The dire predictions for brick-and-mortar retail and the coming artificial intelligence revolution may prompt a conservative approach when it comes to investing in convenience retail.

Last year, I introduced you to iSee’s new business partner, Bill Donius, a former bank CEO. “The c-store industry captured my attention as it’s one where there’s been a great deal of innovation that’s resulted in making lives easier and better for consumers,” he said in relating his outsider investment thoughts on the industry.

He’s not the only one seeing the potential of c-stores. Inside the industry, an interesting phenomenon is taking place with the infusion of millennial talent. Young folks are turning to our industry as they place their career bets. So much stuff is going on in our changing world, yet they chose convenience. Why? I conducted my own roundtable of the millennials on the iSee team to get a fresh point of view.

Why Convenience?

The convenience challenge quickly surfaced as a theme. Jarod Gentry, an account manager, says, “The c-store business is one that can still win and lose through customer service. That human interaction is something that appeals to me. Secondly, I enjoy the constant innovation that keeps us on our toes.”

Nathan Underhill, our new president, says that given the stores’ small footprint , “c-store operators have to get creative with merchandising, a challenge I enjoy.”

Then there’s my own daughter Melissa. Now marketing director for iSee, she said, “I found my way to covering the convenience channel due to family connections and quickly discovered why my father has been such a passionate advocate for this industry. Joining the supplier side of things and getting more involved seemed a natural progression to further entrench myself in this c-store family.”

Like her sister Jessica, our sales process manager, and many c-store retailers, some just have convenience in their blood.

Building Investments

Beyond supporting the channel we market to, as suppliers, we also need to look after our investments. “The biggest challenge is the race to stand out,” Jarod says. “Every supplier wants more product space, more opportunity to promote, all in a space that limits those opportunities. The creative ones, the ones who can insert themselves into ‘new’ space, where the fight is minimal, are the ones who will win.”

Nathan says, “Suppliers must remember that retailers are in the business of selling their brand, not yours. Making supplier products meaningful to retail goals opens the doors to success.”

On the theme of family, Melissa says, “Many of the retailers in this channel have been in it for years, with lots of ‘lifers.’ On the supplier side, where there’s significant turnover and many new companies, it’s tough to break into that retail family. Patience and continuity are required in building a supplier-retailer partnership.”

These folks seemed to have learned what they’re investing in. As Nathan puts it, “This is a retailer-driven industry. Make yourself and your company relevant to their goals and you’ll go far.”

This column ran in the May issue of CSP. Click here to view the full issue.