Release the Greyhound
Mansfield partnership with bus line drives more traffic to c-stores.
It started with a call—an innocuous one at that. A Mansfield Oil dealer asked permission to accept an offer to become a Greyhound bus stop. “Of course we told him yes,” recalls Richard Cosmer, Mansfield’s vice president of retail sales and operations.
Once Greyhound altered its route to include the store, inside sales doubled— and a clever idea was born. Today, Mansfield, a Gainesville, Ga.-based national energy partner that supplies 300 locations in 20 states, is embracing a strategic outgrowth that asks the following question: Could convenience stores be the bus stops of tomorrow?
Over the past year, Mansfield has run pilots with four other locations in the Southeast and has seen similar positive results.
“On a bus route, there are 35 people on average on board who are now coming into the store every day,” Cosmer says. “To our pleasant surprise, the ridership started using more goods and services in the store. So if you get the right product mix and foodservice and understand what the ridership wants, it’s an opportunity.”
Dallas-based Greyhound needed to better manage its network of bus stops, Cosmer says. For that reason, the company was eyeing longer-term contracts with site owners and more suitable, cost-efficient places to drop passengers as their current base of stand-alone bus stops began falling into disrepair. Ultimately, its search led to the partnership with Mansfield, which the companies announced in the spring.
And potential sites don’t have to be the size of travel centers, Cosmer says, trying to dispel any unwarranted expectations. A location that can handle a rollover car wash is a potential site. Initial assessments involve the location of current bus stops, number of passengers and how often buses pull up. “For one or two buses a day, a … typical c-store can handle [the traffic],” he says. “Now if you have 300, 400, 500, 600 people a day—not to mention people dropping folks off and picking them up—at that point, you need a mini travel center.” Other elements of the package include:
- A stand-alone device for ticketing and freight sales. The device mimics other retail point-of-sale (POS) registers, so Cosmer says cashiers will already be familiar with the device and the processes involved.
- Staff. Buses come at regular times during the day, so operators can appropriately man the store for everything from ticket sales to increased customer traffic.
- A clean site.
- Proper restroom facilities for the number of people estimated.
- Uniformed staff, with store or Greyhound uniforms (which Cosmer says Mansfield can supply). “We have similar standards when we select an operator as you would if branding to Shell or Chevron or Texaco,” he says. Internally, the main motivation to seek out such a partnership was to support its customer base of fuel retailers and differentiate itself as a supplier. “One of our driving forces is the viability of our operators,” he says. “In our world, the fuel-supply agreement is what we have. If the operator is not viable long term, then the contract isn’t worth anything.”
Taking The Wheel
The idea of c-stores expanding beyond their traditional definition is nothing new. Post offices, dry cleaners and other services have popped up from time to time. What makes this partnership so intriguing is the guaranteed increased traffic flow into stores. Retailers who have taken on the Greyhound opportunity have seen significant improvements with inside sales. Two retailers interviewed by CSP both estimated their increases as 20% to 25%.
Gini Winstead, manager of DownEast Travel Center in Goldsboro, N.C., says Greyhound was looking for an alternative to the station it was operating in town. The old bus stop had been on the decline and would have needed upgrades. Through Mansfield, DownEast became the new stop. It was also a natural choice, considering the travel center is the biggest truckstop in the Wayne County area.
The initial deal and transition occurred more than a year ago, with management at DownEast remodeling its trucker’s lounge and using half of it as an office to sell tickets.
Today, eight buses travel through daily, with some transferring passengers from one bus to another, and others dropping people off at Goldsboro as a final destination. So typically, locals will come and wait for incoming travelers. In addition, the site is also a stop for the local bus system.
The upshot, says Winstead, is a new tier of consumers with a preference for graband- go items such as drinks and chips.
While DownEast’s restaurant has seen increases in to-go orders, the main boost has come from “quick pick-up items like snacks, candy and drinks,” she says. “I think it’s increasing each year, though not as much now as in the beginning.”
Henry Goodwin, CEO of Henry’s Travel Plaza, Orangeburg, S.C., reports a similar scene: a Greyhound terminal in an aging part of town, and a relatively new local transit system that needed a central point for students attending three area colleges. The merger of needs proved advantageous for all parties, especially Goodwin, who had been in business for just two years at the time.
Now, after being a Greyhound stop for about a year, Goodwin sees 10 buses a day, seven days a week. Five of them are Greyhound buses and another five are from a company contracted by Greyhound to provide service to smaller towns.
Inside sales have surged 20% to 25%, and then there are the holidays. Last Thanksgiving was Goodwin’s busiest. Greyhound doesn’t have figures for just how many travelers passed through. “We had no way of knowing the kind of spike we’d see,” Goodwin says. “What Greyhound does is if there are more travelers, they add another bus. Ten buses might turn into 30 and now we have to prepare for it.”
However, he says, after that initial miscalculation last fall, management was prepared, and subsequent holidays were much better staffed, especially in terms of its foodservice and restaurant areas.
Adapting to the bus services means finetuning store operations, says Winstead of DownEast. Cross-training the store’s Greyhound ticket agent is one tip. Downtime between buses is significant, she says, and the person in that position should be able to work the cashier, serve customers and help c-store staff as needed.
The ticketing process is simple: The agent keys in the starting point and destination and prints the ticket. Though the company gets a commission on the tickets, it’s not enough to cover expenses, so insidesale increases are the primary motive.
Both DownEast and Henry’s use back entrances for bus passengers, stemming from a natural traffic flow with buses coming onto the property the same way trucks do. The setup also keeps foot traffic from the bus separate from c-store customers. In his case, Goodwin says the back entrance leads straight to the restrooms, a destination for many passengers after long rides.
What’s comforting to know about the service is that the routine hardly varies. “We know when the buses are scheduled to arrive, how long they stay and when they depart,” says Betty Bunch, operations manager for Henry’s Travel Plaza. “Both our restaurants and the c-store are set up so we have plenty of people on hand.”
Being just the second location to take in a Greyhound location, Goodwin’s setup has been used as a model. “And from what we gather, Greyhound sales have increased,” he says.
Black and White
For Greyhound, the appeal of c-stores is apparent. Chris Bordman, senior director of operations for Greyhound Lines Inc., says the primary motivator was offering “a better service to our customers.”
Often, Mansfield’s retail sites were more convenient than Greyhound’s earlier stops, and customers benefited from having a nearby store where they can easily purchase snacks, beverages, phone cards and souvenirs, and find clean restrooms that the bus network did not offer.
“It was a value-added service to customers; they have the opportunity to purchase goods and services, while we may not have that now,” Bordman says.
For c-store operators, the opportunity is vast. While Greyhound still operates large terminals in major cities that warrant the traffic, it has about 675 locations that are either owned-and-operated by Greyhound, stand-alone bus stops, or sites operated by independent business people, which could be any type of business or retail establishment. Customer feedback has been positive, Bordman says: “One of the things that’s important to them is convenience—the location, the [type of] facility, the offerings in those facilities. … That really is a driving factor that customers can tell us consistently.”
Cosmer of Mansfield points out two additional components to the program. A little-known fact about Greyhound is that it offers package-delivery service, much in the same way as FedEx or UPS. Because buses run multiple times a day between cities, “sometimes deliveries are quicker than FedEx,” he says.
In addition, a retailer does not have to sign a fuel contract with Mansfield to be part of the program, even though it is one of the distributor’s main goals. Those contracts are a plus for Greyhound. With Mansfield looking to sign clients to 10-year fuel contracts, the ties lead to greater stability for that bus stop.
For Mansfield, the venture is part of an ongoing retailer-growth strategy launched five years ago with its “preferred network program,” aimed at delivering operators a broad range of profitable in-store services.
“So conceptually,” says Cosmer, “if you think about how to drive more people into the store, Mansfield has always been looking to do that.”
The partnership between Mansfield Oil Co. and Greyhound introduces new numbers that many c-store retailers may not be accustomed to. But unfamiliar or not, many of these figures can translate into increased sales.
20% to 25% Estimated boost in inside sales, according to two retailers testing the program 50 The number of seats on at typical bus, with 35 an average number of passengers
2–10 The number of buses that can stop by a location on a daily basis
675 The number of Greyhound bus stops that could potentially move to c-stores