By Pat Pape
Kwik Trip of La Crosse, Wisconsin, is famous for selling fresh bananas at 39 cents a pound. But when the program was first rolled out several years ago, "many of our own store leaders thought, â€˜Are you serious?â€™" recalled John McHugh, director of corporate communications. "Today, ask anyone in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa who has the best bananas at the best price. They will universally say Kwik Trip."
Bananas â€" fresh and value priced â€" have become a signature item for the 350-convenience store chain. In fact, they are so important to the product mix that Kwik Trip has installed a banana-ripening facility at the companyâ€™s distribution center.
Signature items are "Products that consumers know you for," said David Bishop, managing partner at Barrington, Illinois-based Balvor LLC, a retailing consultancy. "They are associated with the brand, such as Burger King and The Whopper."
While national chains are more likely to engage research and development firms to help create signature items, most retailers "leverage existing products and customize them to a degree," Bishop said, pointing to Parkerâ€™s Markets of Savannah, Georgia, which uniquely positions its fountain program.
"Weâ€™re best known for our 79-cent fountain drink," said Greg Parker, president of Parkerâ€™s Markets. "It probably drives more sales than anything." Parkerâ€™s uses filtered water to make both the fountain drink and the "chewy ice" that Southerners prefer, and fountainheads in each store are cleaned nightly. "The price and ice are big, but we also use the perfect cup, which is Styrofoam and doesnâ€™t sweat," said Parker. "Our stores sell so much product that our bag in the box is always fresh."
Signature items are "unbelievably critical," said Jack Cushman, vice president of foodservice for Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes of Canastota, New York. "If youâ€™re going to be the same as everyone else, you might as well not get in the business."
Nice N Easy is known for its Egg on the Go, a breakfast sandwich made from a croissant and various types of sausage, egg and cheese. Occasionally, it features "the three pig groups" of ham, sausage and bacon, he added. "Itâ€™s like a blank canvas. You can do a lot with it." While the grab-and-go sandwich wasnâ€™t developed specifically as a signature item, customers made it one.
"Sometimes you donâ€™t know what youâ€™ve got until the customer responds," Cushman said.
At York, Pennsylvania-based Rutterâ€™s, three sandwiches continually draw customers to the counter: the cheesesteak, grilled cheese and Sloppy Joe. "We wanted to be known for fresh food and quality. That was a personal mantra," said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice. "As I started developing product, it was clear that some items took off. "We didnâ€™t put together the cheesesteak sandwich thinking â€˜this is what weâ€™re going to be known for,â€™" he said. "But itâ€™s great to have [a signature item]."
Recently, Rutterâ€™s rolled out the Walking Taco, which starts with a bag of crushed Doritos. "The bag is the carÂrier," Weiner said. "Into the bag you scoop taco meat, shredded lettuce, cheese, jalapenos, black olives, sour cream and onions. You can eat it with a fork while youâ€™re walking."
The idea came from Tim Rutter, who heads the companyâ€™s real estate division. "His children are very acÂtive in sports, and concession stands were selling this at sporting events," Weiner said.
The company experimented with recipes and then rolled out the product with a billboard advertising campaign. "Itâ€™s turned out to be very popular," he said. "Now Iâ€™m looking at other options and sizes."
Although itâ€™s early, Weiner believes the Walking Taco could become anÂother signature item. "By the nature of the bag, itâ€™s unique," he said. "AnyÂthing that makes you a destination in a consumerâ€™s mind is a plus."
Finding your signature item may reÂquire time and testing, according to officials at Stripes, the Corpus Christi, Texas-based retailer with 500-plus convenience stores in Texas, OklahoÂma and New Mexico. The chainâ€™s 99Âcent taco went through numerous itÂerations before becoming the product it is today, popular with both Hispanic consumers and anyone who loves fresh, authentic Mexican foods.
In 2001, Stripes introduced tacos that were prepared in a commissary, wrapped in foil and delivered to stores. "They were not hot, fresh and deliÂcious," said David Wishard, vice presiÂdent of business development.
Eventually, the company installed kitchens in many locations, displaying food cafeteria-style. "Now you walk in the front door and smell fresh food cooking," said Wishard. "Itâ€™s not being made in a backroom or hidden away. You see it being made fresh."
"You eat with two senses â€" smell and sight â€" before you even taste it," said Ben Hoffmeyer, senior category manÂager for foodservice at Stripes. "Even the tortillas are made from scratch. Thatâ€™s our secret sauce."
From the humble taco, the retailer developed its proprietary Laredo Taco Co. (LTC) foodservice brand. The sucÂcessful concept was applied to the Town & Country Food Stores in West Texas after Stripes acquired the chain in 2007. The company successfully blended the Hispanic food offerings from South Texas to expand the LTC menu with favorites such as chicken and biscuits, corn dogs and fried gizÂzards.
Today, LTC is so popular that it only goes into the stores with enough parkÂing places to handle the traffic. "The concept doesnâ€™t work for locations with a small footprint," said Hoffmeyer.
Any retailer can offer customers someÂthing special and become well known for it, said Bishop. "First, understand your shoppers and know what they are looking for or what they value."
He advises retailers to consider products that may not be obvious conÂvenience store fare. "Itâ€™s helpful to meet with a wide range of suppliers to see what is available," he said. "Look at things and ask â€˜How can I leverage something like that?â€™ The point is that you donâ€™t have to create the item from scratch."
Single-store operators have certain advantages over large chains because of their size and ability to respond to specific needs. "They can feature loÂcally grown produce or freshly baked pastries from a local baker," Bishop said. "That may allow them to offer regional-specific taste preferences, whereas large chains may not be able to respond as effectively to that opportunity."
In addition, retailers can customize existing products in the form of brandÂing, he noted, referring to Wawa stores in Pennsylvania. According to the companyâ€™s website, Wawa is the single largest purveyor of freshly made and built-to-order sandwiches and hoaÂgies in the Delaware Valley. Since the 1970s, the c-store chain has sold more than 54 million built-to-order hoaÂgies, and was instrumental in having the hoagie named the Official SandÂwich of Philadelphia in 1992.
"Wawa is known for hoagies," Bishop said. "They didnâ€™t create the hoagie and thatâ€™s not the only place you can get a hoagie, but one of the strong associations consumers have with Wawa is the hoagie. Wawa has the annual Hoagiefest and celebrates that item in a way that reinforces its uniqueness."
Even after a product is successful, customÂers must be reminded of its availability.
Parkerâ€™s Markets advertises its fountain drinks on billboards, bus wraps and through television spots. Nice N Easy regularly promotes its Egg on the Go with special offers, such as two for a lower price or in combinaÂtion with hot coffee.
Kwik Trip reminds customers about fresh bananas. "We do commercials and billboards even though we are well known for them," said McHugh. "A few years ago we had a guest dress up like a gorilla and try to steal the plastic baÂnanas that we used for display."
"The signature item is something youâ€™re known for, but it doesnâ€™t have to be a product," Bishop said. QuikTrip, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, considers the store team itself as the signature product, acÂcording to Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs. "AnyÂbody can duplicate a structure or prodÂuct, but you canâ€™t duplicate our people. You can have a nice bright store, but if customers have a bad experience, they wonâ€™t come back."
Out of every 100 QuikTrip applicants, only one is hired. "We are paÂtient," he said. "We wait until we have the right person, and we train them in the expectations of QuikTrip." Both employee salaries and benefits are significantly higher than the retail avÂerage. There are ample opportunities for employee growth and advanceÂment within the organization, and job openings are made available to existÂing employees before they are adverÂtised to the public.
"Weâ€™re looking for people who can multitask and are very outgoing," said Thornbrugh. "You canâ€™t teach that. A person has it or they donâ€™t."
With experimentation and creativity, store operators can develop the right product or service to keep customers returning, Bishop said. "You must take off your merchant glasses and look through the lens of the consumer and find ways to create a different experiÂence. You want to create something that surprises and delights people so that they say â€˜when I think of you, I think of A, B and C.â€™"
Pat Pape is a writer and communicaÂtions consultant for retailing clients and trade associations as managing partner of Brookview Advisors Inc.