Customers judge convenience stores by their appearance on a daily basis when they decide whether to stop at one over the other. Knowing outdated looks don’t lure customers, Orton Oil is remodeling its older sites and coming up with fresh marketing ideas to rival competitors.
Founded in 1958 by Leland and Maude Orton, Orton Oil remains family owned and headquartered in Walker, Minn. Fourth-generation owner and Vice President Frank Orton says over the past 55 years the company has grown significantly from where it started as a single oil service station and Ford dealership.
Today, Orton Oil owns 15 sites, provides wholesale gasoline and operates a bulk plant that supplies residents in the area with fuel for heating their homes. “We diversified among a lot of markets,” Orton said. “Northwestern Minnesota has helped us a lot. We have very good locations and very strong assets in them.”
Renovations at Orton Oil sites have been a major focus recently, Orton says. “We have substantial interior remodeling being done on a variety of sites to make them more modern,” Orton adds. “Some stores that are older and tired, we will work in the direction to get them rebuilt or renovated.” The company is remodeling at least one site – indoors and out - per year.
Renovations include new LED lighting, checkout counters, flooring, ceilings, restrooms and gas pumps. This year, four of the sites will receive new tile on the walls, floors and ceilings of the restroom. Another three or four sites will have their restrooms renovated next year. Some are also changing from a single-stall to a multi-stall restroom.
LED lights project brighter and clearer, which is more appealing to consumers while also being energy efficient, Orton adds. “We put LED canopy lights outside and added brand new pumps … the front looks nice,” Orton says. “We want to have a strong presence for customers and quality equipment.”
With its dispersed locations in rural Minnesota, print advertising is not cost-effective for Orton Oil. Each station is far enough apart that ads would have to be placed in multiple newspapers to reach all of its clientele. This is not an expenditure the company could justify.
To combat this marketing challenge, the company purchased electronic message boards that are now being piloted at four sites. Orton says it is working so far – people notice the sales advertised on the board and pull in to shop or get gas.
Still not a cheap decision – each message board costs between $35,000 and $40,0000 – Orton believes this strategy was the most cost-effective. “Once you buy it you own it and you can put whatever you want up there,” Orton explains. “We can put anything from ‘help wanted’ to our monthly specials. We looked at the marketing budget and what we are spending on print ads across so many markets and there is no way to cover the cost of the ads.”
Being community-minded is paramount to Orton Oil, Orton says. The company prioritizes community involvement and its employees.
Orton Oil contributes to nine organizations that impact its communities: Muscular Dystrophy Association, Walker Area Community Center, Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School, Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, Wadena Community Center, Audrey’s Purple Dream, Walker Lions Club, Ducks Unlimited and My Favorite Book.
“We are a small, family owned company and our sites are located in small, rural towns,” Orton says. “I think that’s why we support financially and time-wise more than a lot of companies would. We like to promote charities and keep the small towns going. That’s why we are involved in so many, it’s just something our company tries to do.”
Supporting the communities also means valuing its employees who live there. Orton Oil gives time off to employee so they can make it to their child’s sports event or recital. “We want them to go to that,” Orton says. “We want to make sure that happens.”
Each employee also discusses his or her future with the company and is aware of promotion opportunities. “We certainly promote people from within every opportunity we can,” Orton adds. “To hire within is a good deal for us as we already know our employees’ skills sets and it’s a big part of retention.”
Expanding the Market
“I am pretty goal-oriented and results-oriented so it’s in my nature to think of goals, timelines to achieve them and look at results when we get to that point,” Orton says. “I try to set some long-term goals and make sure it’s attainable and realistic.”
The priority for Orton is to be sure all the sites are remodeled or rebuilt by the end of 2016 so they are competitive. Once those are completed, Orton said the company will expand in Minnesota and into North Dakota. “We are more likely to pick up stores in Minnesota in our current geographic area. It wouldn’t surprise me if we did pick up another site or two in North Dakota that is near Grand Forks or Fargo as that is right in our current geographic wheelhouse,” Orton adds. “We are pretty conservative – and I don’t see a change in that regard – so I don’t see ourselves going and buying 50 more sites but it wouldn’t surprise me if we picked up some in North Dakota.”