Businesses realize that the world is always changing, but in this global state of flux, one thing is certain: Those that don’t evolve will indubitably be left behind.

“We have to constantly change and develop and monitor what customers are looking for,” says John MacDougall, founder, president and CEO of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes. “The big thing for us is finding what customers want, developing those products and having those products when they need them. You have to keep it nice and easy.”

This receptiveness to change has been the company’s main competitive tool in the face of mounting competition. In upstate New York, where the chain’s 87 franchised and corporate-owned convenience stores are located, traditional gas and tobacco retailers compete with the region’s Native American Tribes that offer the same tobacco and gas products sans tax. Needless to say, the promise in price savings has lured customers away from traditional c-stores.

“Having these products tax-free gives them a tremendous price advantage and takes away a financial driver for our business,” MacDougall explains. “But something we’ve developed to help our profit margin is a new food program. That’s why we developed Easy Street Eatery.”

Nice N Easy has long stocked private-label foods under labels such as Mama Mias pizza, but about a decade ago it put all of its foods – pizza, subs and sandwiches, coffee and hot dogs – under one easily identifiable label. The company’s investment in Easy Street went so far as to develop a completely separate, dedicated staff, including a marketing team.

The investment has surely been returned. Nice N Easy ranks in the top 5 percent of convenience stores nationwide in terms of food volumes sold. It also has helped the company recoup some of the losses suffered from tax-free competition.

Most of its locations already have Easy Street programs, excepting its older and smaller stores. But as older stores are renovated or replaced and new stores open, an Easy Street Eatery is always incorporated.

Nice N Easy’s fifth-gear commitment to its Easy Street food program is fueled by consumer trends. MacDougall explains that today’s customers may be short on time but they still seek quality food. The company began with pizza before moving into the breakfast sandwich category and has since added sandwiches, subs, wraps and melts. Three years ago, it hired two chefs to design a home meal replacement menu, keeping the busy customer in mind.

“People are conscious of their time and always in a hurry,” MacDougall emphasizes. “And they are also looking for a good-quality product, but one of our biggest hurdles is to overcome the fact that the convenience store industry does not have a great reputation in terms of quality.”

To negate that stereotype, Nice N Easy uses the tried-and-true strategy of free samples. Confident that once customers savor the fresh quality of Easy Street coffee and food they will undoubtedly come back for more, Nice N Easy employees offer in-store food samples to customers.

It will do the same at its newest corporate-owned location, which opened in October. Located in Onondaga Hill, N.Y., the store boasts an espresso station offering fancy do-it-yourself coffee drinks. The company is keeping a close eye on customer response, and if it’s favorable, Nice N Easy plans to bring the coffee espresso program to other locations.

“We have been expanding and adding new food lines since Easy Street was first developed,” MacDougall says. “The foodservice business constantly needs to be redeveloped and redesigned and improved and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Team Effort

Nice N Easy also helps its vendors do the same. The company may develop many of its own products, but it still depends on suppliers to stay stocked in traditional c-store fare. “We share a lot of information with vendors,” MacDougall says. “They don’t have direct contact with the customer, so if we can give them feedback about what customers like, what they would like to see change or a new product that a vendor could provide, that’s all valuable information.”

He describes Nice N Easy’s relationship with vendors as symbiotic. But as much as the company values its vendors, MacDougall emphasizes that its No. 1 asset is its employees.

“Our greatest strength is the quality of our staff,” MacDougall says. “We have people that have been here five, 10, 25 years. We even have four or five employees that have been here since the company was founded 30 years ago. Nice N Easy has become a home for them and a place of opportunity. They love what they do and they have a passion for this company. That’s key to making any business successful.”

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