Catch of the Day

Indie retailer reels in new business with a convenient hook.

By
Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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Mark Gil won’t hesitate to tell you that for an independent retailer, the convenience industry is a difficult road. But getting him to talk about his successes is like swimming upstream.

This experienced owner of a BP station in Glen Ellyn, Ill., has recently found a new way to bait customers.

Gil’s store is a “dinosaur” in the industry, with fewer than 800 square feet of retail space, along with 8 fueling positions. His store is located in an upper middle-class residential area with stiff competition, and it’s too far from any major roadway to draw in commuters.

So why and how is Gil’s store becoming a destination for local fishermen?

Bait and Switch

When the Midwest experienced an uncommonly warm spring in 2012, local fisherman took advantage of the nice weather. But the Walmart two doors down, which usually sells live bait, didn’t have any available in early spring.

“Walmart was sending people over here looking for bait,” Gil says. “After the fifth or sixth customer came in asking for it, I thought, ‘If they won’t offer it, we will.’ ’” He ordered from the same supplier Walmart uses and purchased an inexpensive cooler to keep outside. Gil chilled the bait at 50 degrees, which should keep it fresh for a couple of weeks, but he typically got a new shipment every week.

“The turnaround has been pretty good,” he says. “It doesn’t get any simpler than us.”

Gil is certainly giving new meaning to the term “bait and switch.” Those fishermen are a loyal bunch, and their interest extends to the amenities of an extended day on the boat—complete with ice, drinks and snacks. With the Hidden Lake Forest Preserve across the street from his store and nearby access to two lakes and a river, Gil didn’t need much advertising. He put a small yard sign out front and let word of mouth do the rest.

The buzz about Gil’s bait reached a local wildlife center that cares for injured animals. They recently approached Gil about becoming a bulk supplier.

“I think it’s very likely we’ll get a larger cooler or add a second one, because of the volume we’re doing,” he says.

Chumming the Waters

Gil doesn’t try new things too often, but he finds success when he does. In the ’90s, when fine cigars were trendy, he dedicated 8 linear feet to them. “For a while, it was the most profitable 8 feet of my store,” he says. He still carries a small selection of them. “It’s not near what it used to be, but it still does pretty well.”

Gil says he’s tried to call it quits half a dozen times, “but just when you think you’ve had enough,” he says, “you get a good streak for two or three years.”

Gil has been on the independent roller coaster for 28 years. “I started working on this corner in December 1985 as a student at a local community college, right when the store opened,” he says. He bought the place from his boss five years later.

“When business is good to you, it’s very good. But when it’s difficult, it’s really tough,” Gil says. “What finishes a lot of people off is that when it’s very good, they assume it’s always going to be that way. The weather will strain your car-wash business, recession will hit, gas margins will be bad.”

His advice? Put money in the bank to get you through the hard times, and don’t forget to keep reinvesting in your store.

“Even if you’re not the new guy, you can look like the new guy,” he says. 


Gil’s Car Wash at a Glance

A few details about the car wash Gil runs along with his BP:

  • 60-foot building, 80-foot conveyor.
  • Fully staffed; employees towel-dry cars.
  • All equipment installations and maintenance work done in-house.
  • Uses different parts from four or five different manufacturers.
  • Offers gasoline discount with car-wash purchase that fluctuates depending on gasoline margins.
  • Offers five-day clean car guarantee with two wash packages; promotion has been in effect for 15 years.

 

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