This Virginia-based c-store chain knows how to make a lasting impression on its customers. According to Carl Hitt, director of retail operations for Wi-Not Stop, running a good convenience store chain isn’t rocket science. It’s a matter of maintaining the basics: keeping hot food hot, cold food cold, and giving the customer what they want.
But there’s a difference between good and great, and that’s where EE Wine, Inc.’s 11-location convenience store chain, plus a Dairy Queen franchise, separates itself from the competition. Across the c-store industry, foodservice has become the biggest growth opportunity. Wi-Not Stop has partnered with McDonald’s and in Northern Virginia continues to pursue opportunities to be connected to new McDonald’s locations.
“Donovan Wine took over the company in the late ’70s from his father, who started the company,” said Hitt. “He saw retail as an opportunity for growth, and with these McDonald’s locations, we can see a marked increase in the customer count because people like the idea of a one-stop shop.”
Giving people the convenience they want doesn’t mean overlooking the quality they hope to find, and this is where Wi-Not Stop shines. Its locations offer candy bars, soda, chips—the kinds of food products you’d expect to find in a c-store, but the company is now focused on taking it to the next level by bringing locally grown and organic goods to its Wi-Not Stop Cafés.
“Our goal is to partner with local farmers and move into organic products,” said Hitt. “People are looking for convenience, but they’re also looking for healthy alternatives. We feel this move will differentiate us because it’s difficult to find items that are good for you in a convenience store.”
One of the company’s locations used to be a grocery store that was known for its fresh meat. It currently has its own meat department, and Hitt said the goal is to work with local farmers to bring that image back to the location while also supplying all locations with fresh, locally farmed meat.
“That location already serves as a commissary for our other stores with its bakery and full-service deli,” said Hitt. “We’re just taking it to the next level.”
Over the next 10 years, the goal for Wi-Not Stop is to increase the number of locations from 12 to 25. Just as when he built the Wi-Not Stop chain in the beginning, Donovan Wine is handling the next stage of growth very carefully.
In Northern Virginia, zoning is a long and difficult process. In addition, dense populations have made traffic a challenge. To manage both of these challenges, Wine scouts out what he considers to be “A” locations, which are at intersections with busy traffic and where customers have easy access in and out of the parking lot.
“Would you drive out of your way and pass one of our locations to get to one that has gasoline a couple cents cheaper if it meant having to battle traffic? Probably not,” said Hitt. “Our locations are strategically placed to make it easier for our customers and appealing for those on the go.”
The company is also renovating some of its older locations, upgrading the interior and exterior look to better illustrate the company’s focus on foodservice. With five deli locations already in play and more to come, Wi-Not Stop is looking to develop a strong brand that’s recognized for quality and consistency.
“Complete menu offerings, fresh products, and local service—we’re renovating our stores so their interiors focus on those strengths,” said Hitt.
As more national c-store chains creep into the Northern Virginia market, Wi-Not Stop has struggled to maintain an advantage with the price of its products, so last year, the company switched to Core Mark to consolidate its vendors, eliminating excess time and money while also increasing its buying power.
“We eliminated a dairy, bread, and drink supplier, and we now buy all of those products from one grocery supplier,” said Hitt. “We also eliminated roughly $100,000 in phone card inventory because we got a gift card program called Coin Star through Core Mark.”
Additionally, Core Mark placed dairy coolers inside each Wi-Not Stop, which has jumpstarted the company’s desire to bring more fresh and healthy items into the food product mix. The coolers have salads, fruit cups, sandwiches, fruit wedges, and apple dippers, as well as a variety of dairy products.
Bells and whistles
Wi-Not Stop is the retail division under the EE Wine umbrella, which includes a service division headed up by Michael Wine and includes Crystal Clean, a duct-cleaning business. The third division is an oil supply business, which supplies oil and fuel to each Wi-Not Stop location, as well as dealers and home-heating consumers using their own fuel tanker trucks.
Behind the scenes, Wi-Not Stop uses Service Station Computer System as its back-office software company and recently upgraded to ensure it was using all of SSCS’s bells and whistles to their fullest potential. “We’re now using a hand-held interface mechanism that enables us to order from Core Mark,” said Hitt. “We get better reporting, and the system is more stable.”
The upgrade began in May, and the final phase was finished in November. All store managers had onsite training to ensure the transition was smooth. Hitt even trained on it to fully grasp the advantages. “We’re able to do more EDI transactions,” he said. “Rather than having to scan each piece of merchandise, the invoice is already in the system electronically. It saves a tremendous amount of time.”
Although customers don’t see the tightened operations, they do see the efforts Hitt and his team have put forth in making Wi-Not Stop a high-quality c-store chain. In the past few months, the company’s fuel volumes have risen between 20% and 25%, and Hitt believes it all comes back to the focus on giving the customers what they want.
“When customers walk in, that’s our chance to give them a great first impression,” he said. “We want them to see a clean door, clean floor, and clutter free windows, and every customer should be greeted when they walk in. By making that customer experience memorable, we’re hoping consumers will drive those who shop at competitors to come to our stores.”