A Retail Education
Five-store owner sees c-store industry as his own classroom.
V J Patel’s desire for higher education brought him to North Carolina. He grew up in India, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics before moving to England to study engineering and optical fiber communications. He worked in IT for GE for close to a year before deciding he wanted more managerial qualifications. He moved to Morganton,N.C., and started an MBA program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. There he met and fell in love with a girl named Vijal, and they married. Vijal worked with her parents operating a c-store and, during their engagement, Patel would help at the store between class and studying.
“I got close to it and saw all the day-today operations and really liked the idea of a convenience store,” he says. “I love to talk with all kinds of people on all kinds of topics, and in a c-store you can do that while providing a service to the community.”
Thanks to some family members who offered initial financing, Patel began operating c-stores of his own. Now he’s providing that personal service and talking up a storm with customers at five—and soon to be six—Stop N Go locations in North Carolina. The first site, opened in August 2009 in Morganton, was a 1,200-square-foot store, run primarily by Vijal. It was an interstate location outside of town with no other stores, restaurants or hotels nearby.“I wanted to start with something not too costly, with a lot of room for improvement,” Patel says. “It needed a lot of work: repairs, cleaning, empty shelves. It was a very bad situation.”
But in less than eight months, the couple turned it around. They installed new flooring and lighting and improved the layout to facilitate better customer flow. Quickly, the investment bore fruit, both in profits and customer feedback. After a little more than a year, the Patels sold the store, content with the experience they’d gained from that location, but ready to start fresh somewhere else. By then they were already five months into improving another troubled location just down the road. He put the same elbow grease into the second store and saw the same results.
After about a year, he sold the second store, too. VJ had completed his MBA and was considering putting his newly acquired managerial qualifications to use in another industry. The couple planned for Vijal to run new c-stores, but VJ couldn’t tear himself away. Today, Vijal spends most of her time caring for their 2-year-old son and VJ focuses on the five stores they now operate together.
All of the locations are next to traffic lights, the reason behind the name Stop N Go, and they all are on highly trafficked roads within a 20-mile radius of each other. They fly the Shell flag at allocations but one, which is branded ExxonMobil. Store layouts vary by location, but Patel has tried to make them all open concepts with plenty of room.
The first new location is outside Asheville on US-25 in a neighborhood surrounded by factories. Patel has two other neighborhood locations, all with a mix of regular clientele. The two Morganton sites draw more dashboard diners and interstate drivers. They do well on gas, with 14 fuel dispensers at one site, and decent on inside sales. Stores range from 1,900 to 3,200 square feet.
Most of the customers at Patel’s interstate locations are just passing through, but his neighborhood stores are full of regulars. In those stores, he tries to respond quickly to every need.
“This is a very complicated market and you can’t have your customers requesting product and you not listening,” he says. Patel is known for special ordering items. One frequent customer loves Foster’s, but it’s not a big enough seller to warrant shelf space. Even so, he orders it for his loyal fan. “I keep it in the back stock,” Patel says.“He just walks into the cooler and picks up his beer.”
He also runs a Coffee Club loyalty punch card program—buy five cups, get one free. He’s transitioning to a coffeehouse quality blend called Java City, distributed by McLane Co. He’s seen close to an 800% increase in coffee sales in four months as a result and is doing 15 to 20 pots of coffee per morning at one location.
Building a Culture
Patel’s enthusiasm and diligence is reflected in his team of 17 employees. New employees undergo a week of training with a store manager. They are then mentored for 15 days of shift training, partnered with a veteran clerk until they’re ready to fly solo on a shift.
“We know most of our customers by the families,” Patel says. “We have parents coming in the mornings on their way to work and stopping by when they’ve picked up their kids at the end of the day. Knowing them helps us provide better customer service. We can say, ‘Hey John, how are you? How are the kids?’ instead of something vague like, ‘Hey, sir, may I help you?”
Patel says he has a great team of reliable managers working for him, which gives him freedom to explore what he can do to improve the business.
“Believe it or not,” he says, “I haven’t used most of my MBA knowledge in the stores. I’ve been going out into other c-stores and talking to managers. I try to get an idea of how they run their operations, and I apply their ideas to my stores.”He also meets twice a year with share groups to talk with retailers and manufacturers about the unique challenges independent owners face.
Because of these conversations combined with personal experience, Patel has learned about strategies such as gas gift cards. He offers customers 4 to 5 cents off per gallon when they buy Shell or Axon gift cards, which many customers turnaround and use themselves at the pumps.“It’s a good way to keep our costs down interms of credit-card fees,” Patel says, “but it also serves as a thank you by offering a discount to our customers.” Usually about 3% to 4% of his total sales and 6% to 8% of his gas sales come from gift cards.
And then there’s a very personal touch: Stop N Go hosts an annual catered dinner at each location, providing food and a free fountain drink or cup of coffee to all customers. The event can draw 400 customers per location.
One of the advantages Patel enjoys as an operator is the freedom to still work a store. “Whenever I’m in the stores, I talk to customers,” he says. “I run out to the pumps to thank them for their business and make them aware of promotions. I want their feedback, too. Is there something I can do to help them out? We make them feel special. We let them know that they are looked after.”