“I would also imagine that Mariano’s may eventually look into smaller versions of their current store footprint to fit into appealing, space-constrained sites. They could leverage the power of the Mariano’s brand and apply it to a somewhat smaller store,” Hauptman says.
Tim Powell, principal and c-store practice lead with Chicago-based Technomic Inc., predicts that Mariano’s will need to adopt different menu items and stay ahead of culinary trends to outpace its adversaries. “It is a very innovative store, but [mass supermarkets] will be quick to copy,” says Powell.
Barry suggests one area Mariano’s could improve on is stocking and promoting an even greater diversity of global foods, which is expansive now but could be even bigger and better.
“I don’t really expect them to shift their strategy, but they will likely continue to evolve as food trends change,” says Stern. “They have been very methodical in how they’re entering the market and opening stores. The only thing that might change would be an acquisition of an existing chain to accelerate their growth.”
Lessons to Learn
While much of what Mariano’s excels at can only be admired from a distance by c-store operators, who are limited by space, resources and the demands of convenience-oriented consumers, many experts believe some of the grocer’s successful strategies can be adopted.
For example, c-stores can emulate Mariano’s focus on attentive service and fresh, family-friendly products and solutions, Hauptman says.
“Regardless of the department, Mariano’s offers an expert who can help the shopper make an educated decision,” he says. “And Mariano’s provides value-added options that make meal preparation easier for families with children. These are all areas which would be somewhat fertile ground for c-store operators.”
Barry says the c-store channel as a whole seems to believe it has mostly been immune to the latest trends around quality and freshness, “but that’s increasingly not the story anymore. Even when people shop for certain occasions at a c-store, they have these expectations of freshness and higher quality distinctions, even in those locations.”
Barry believes c-stores can distinguish themselves in foodservice, as Mariano’s has done, by offering at least one high-quality edible item and building on its reputation.
“If a c-store could do one thing really well, what would it want to be famous for? They could do a really great brat, or the best gelato bar in town, or the best slice of pizza. To know that you can walk in that door and get a really great sandwich no matter what and get back out quickly while you’re filling up on gas—that’s a game changer,” says Barry.
However, there’s little to no fresh food credibility or innovation right now in the c-store channel, despite the fact that consumer food culture is rapidly changing, she says.
“[Convenience retailers] need to get out of the commodity-driven, low-quality, low-price mindset. Yes, people want fast and convenient, but they also want more choice and higher quality,” says Barry.
Barry also points to a clear sense of “pride and ownership” exuded by Mariano’s employees, “which is something that’s seriously lacking in the c-store channel. Most (convenience retail workers) don’t have a level of expertise about what they are selling and lack a sense of pride working in that environment.”
Powell admits that c-stores do not have the labor or the experience to become a Mariano’s overnight. “But they should [look to Mariano’s] as a best-in-class example of food safety, presentation, staff friendliness and flexibility,” he says.