Understanding the unique needs of each of its markets helps this Pennsylvania c-store chain thrive. Convenience store operators find themselves in an interesting niche in a tough economy. They are sure to see a drop in sales in some areas just like any business, but the variety of products and competitive price points gives them an edge that other businesses often don’t have. However, at Pennsylvania’s Top Star Express, the key to surviving the economic downturn comes back to one word—service.

Top Star Express is a chain of 31 convenience stores in Pennsylvania. Mostly located in Eastern Pennsylvania, the stores are concentrated in the Lehigh Valley and Reading markets. In addition to the Top Star Express stores, the parent company, Top Star Inc., operates seven Subway franchises and runs its own American Roadside Grill delis. One Top Star Express location includes a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts. Top Star Express has branded gas, Exxon, Shell, or Valero, at all of its locations. 

On the lookout

The company is always looking for new opportunities. It has two more Subway locations in development, and it was the first in Pennsylvania to install Blockbuster kiosks in its stores, providing customers with the opportunity for $1 a night DVD rentals.

“Our size allows us to be quick to the market, and we like to be new and innovative and bring things to our customers quickly,” said Megan Stark, operations manager. “That flexibility also helps us be quick to learn what suits each of our markets.” 

Stark said the company’s focus is to live up to its “Convenience Done Right” slogan. To do that, she said the company has to instill in each employee the drive to provide fast and friendly service with a personal touch, learning regular customers’ names and their preferences. Top Star Express has a full-time merchandising specialist constantly running movement reports on what sells at each store. 

“We try to keep each store well stocked with products visible and easy to find,” Stark said. “None of the stores are exactly the same. Each is set up based on the local customer preferences. In addition, because of the changes to the economy, we have shifted toward offering more products people would find at a grocery store or a drugstore, aggressively partnering with our vendors to offer discounts.”

But it is that front line service that keeps people coming back to Top Star Express. That requires the support of front line employees, who are given the freedom to make decisions on their own and are involved in the corporate decisionmaking process. Manager’s meetings are held at least once a month, and information is passed on to the front line so employees not only are aware of any changes, but also understand why any changes are happening. The company also works to make sure employees have a voice in the organization because they are the face of Top Star Express.  

“For example, we had a front line employee who had been told by customers on the first day of the fishing season that we needed to open earlier,” said Stark. “Now on the first day of fishing season in Pennsylvania, we open two hours earlier so the fishermen who get up at the crack of dawn can get their coffee before they head out to go fishing. That is the result of our employees knowing that they can make suggestions and that we listen to them.” 

Working together

On the vendor side, Top Star Express understands that vendors are important business partners. The company maintains good relationships with vendors by working together to find win-win opportunities for both sides. For example, during football season, the company paired up with Pepsi and Herr’s Chips to offer discounts and specials targeted toward football fans. In addition, the economic situation has caused a revival of manufacturer coupons. Hershey’s has provided the company with coupons that allow customers to get a free soda with the purchase of a candy bar.

“Those programs have been successful, as we’ve been able to promote combined brands through signage and radio spots,” Stark said.

Beyond that the company understands the importance of solidifying its place in the market as a community partner and not just a convenience store. The Top Star Express operations team reviews every charitable request the company receives through its stores, Web site, or other means. The company teams up with charities year round through a custom fundraising program that assists schools, youth sports teams, churches, and other nonprofits with fundraising activities.

“In addition, each quarter we pick one national charity and support the local chapter,” said Stark. “For example, we’ve worked with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the MS Foundation, the Autism Foundation, and the American Cancer Society.”

Local focus

The company has always been focused on Pennsylvania, and that focus isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Stark said the company’s primary corporate focus in recent times has been ensuring it has the right people in the right places to lay the groundwork for the organization’s future growth. As the company moves toward what it sees as the next level, expansion is certainly apart of the plans, but solidifying its current footprint is more important than getting caught up in grand plans about massive expansion.

That doesn’t mean the company isn’t planning to expand its footprint. Looking ahead into 2010, Top Star Express is keeping its eyes open for acquisition or long-term lease opportunities that would allow it to continue the gradual growth of the number of stores in its portfolio.

The challenge for the company as it tries to expand is risk management. The company has to be sure it doesn’t spread itself too thin. Although its relatively small size is good for flexibility and speed to market, it also limits just how fast it can grow. In a tight economy, over-expansion would be dangerous. The company is also working to keep up with changes to the industry like PCI compliance standards and the direction of fuel as the auto industry changes. But the bottom line for convenience stores like Top Star Express always comes back to service.

“We need to make sure customers are comfortable in our stores and enjoy their experience each time they come in,” Stark said. “Our employees and our customers are our business. We need to keep them happy. This dedicated focus on our employees and customers will keep current customers returning and in turn hopefully help gain new customers.”