Are you innovating yourself out of business? Lessons from a C-Store visit.

It happened again just this week.

I was in line at a well-known convenience store when another customer mumbled an obscenity-laced complaint about the wait, then stormed out without making a purchase. Another customer followed. Then another.

It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this dynamic – at this same brand of c-store.

There’s no mystery here. In the press to deliver a seemingly ever-expanding variety of prepared foods, the brand has overwhelmed the lone staff member on site. In this case a poor cashier who is tasked with both food prep and handling transactions. But, the vehement reaction to this situation, now witnessed on several occasions, points to something deeper.

The brand, in these instances, is failing to deliver on its core promise of convenience. This leaves customers feeling let down, even betrayed. I get it, and most certainly the guy in line behind me got it. After all, what’s the point of stopping into a convenience store only to have the retailer take a disproportionate amount of the one resource, time, that you’re most lacking?

Competitive models, whether QuikTrip/QT Kitchens or our former client Stripes/Laredo Taco Company, have gotten around this with dedicated kitchen staff. But, these are different businesses with different menus, store footprints and margin targets. While I won’t pretend to know how to solve specific issues for the brand in question, there are some lessons here for the taking.

  • Understand what your customer wants most from you. I’d venture to guess c-store shoppers value convenience more than the umpteenth new item off the roller grill. Comprise your ability to deliver the core need and risk customers’ wrath.
  • When it comes to staffing, there’s no saving of your way out of this challenge. The investment in innovation has to be matched with an investment in staffing that allows you to provide variety and news-worthiness –but doesn’t undermine your reason for being.
  • Teaching customer-mindedness and instilling a service philosophy are every bit is as important as teaching safe food handling. Make sure team members are clear on the first priority, their “prime directive.”

Watching customers angrily defect from a line, and possibly a brand, made me realize I was witnessing something important: a cautionary tale, not just for c-stores but for brands of all types. Its lesson: Know what the consumer expects from you. You’re welcome to deliver more, but you can’t deliver less.

And, in a day when people don’t know who or what to trust (e.g., politicians, the media, etc.), a brand that breaks its central promise might be even more prone to backlash than it may have been in a kinder, gentler past.

To learn more about Firehouse, our philosophy, capabilities and consumer expertise visit our website.