By Mary Ellen Kuhn
A good game plan and plenty of teamwork have dramatically upped candy’s place within this nimble, Florida-based convenience store chain.
Kevin Cook knows a thing or two about both competition and teamwork. He’s a former college athlete (football and track at Columbia University) with an athletic spouse (his wife, Laura, played basketball for the West Point women’s team.) Now he and Laura have six sports-oriented offspring. The family includes two highly ranked competitive divers — daughters, Kara, 16, and Kassidy, 10, both of whom are currently training in Houston with world-famous diving coach Kenny Armstrong.
On the business front, Cook has applied his competitive instincts to the task of assembling a successful, 30-store chain of Florida convenience stores in which candy has assumed all-star status as a contributor to sales and profits. Cook’s company, Maverick Management Inc., owns one of the convenience sites; the remaining 29 are operated via franchise agreements with either Mobil or Shell oil companies. Twenty-six of the stores are in the Orlando area, and the remaining four are in Fort Lauderdale. Cook’s approach to the candy category and to the business overall has involved more than a little teamwork — within his own organization, with vendors and with convenience store distributor Eby-Brown.
This past May, retailing veteran Melissa Barker joined “Team Maverick” as operations manager, and she, too, has been instrumental in building up the candy category within the stores — working with Eby-Brown to re-set the entire category, adjusting pricing to make it consistent, meeting with vendors, and basically doing whatever it takes on any given day to get the job done.
After a bit of commuting back and forth from Jacksonville, Fla., where she had been living and working, Barker moved to Orlando in early June and began tackling the job in earnest. Candy plan-o-grams were revamped by mid-June. “And by the end of July, the numbers were really starting to show a difference,” she reports.
Candy’s position within the operation has advanced in recent months. “We’re up from about 16 percent [of total purchases from Eby-Brown] to about 23 percent,” Barker reports. “And overall sales are up, so we’re doing nicely.” And with candy margins in the range of 35 percent to 40 percent vs. 17 percent to 18 percent or so for a category like cigarettes, it’s contributing nicely to profits as well.
“Candy has evolved for us,” reflects Cook. “It’s earned its spot in the store.”
How they did it
The candy revamp is designed to put products where a consumer might logically seek them out. “I tried to come up with a plan-o-gram that followed what I consider a sensible path, going from your chocolate over to your fruity over to your gum and mints,” says Barker.
“You really have to diversify the category and manage it like many small categories … so the first thing I looked at was what do we have, what are we selling? How much space do we have? And how do we maximize our profit potential in that space?”
The new plan-o-gram brings theater boxes and king-size bars to the forefront in the checkout area. Special attention has been paid to ensuring that kids’ candy is placed at kids’ — not adults’ — eye level.
“So if you walk out to the gum and mint category, you’re going to see that the Altoids are up high and the Chiclets and Bubble Yum are down at [an adult’s] knee level,” says Barker. “It’s definitely helped our sales because the right person sees the right items.”
As part of the process, Barker and team also turned their attention to the store layouts — and in particular, where candy is positioned within the stores. Barker found, for example, that in some stores, the aisle leading to the cooler vault was occupied by grocery items rather than candy. Moving candy into that high-traffic, prime real estate within the store just made sense, she notes.
With the stores re-set, Barker is committed to staying ahead of the game and working with Eby-Brown and candy vendors to schedule product introductions and promotions as far out as possible.
“We’ve got 11 new items just between Hershey, Nestlé and Masterfoods coming out before the end of the first quarter,” Barker reflects. “We’re in the middle of doing store re-sets now. Knowing that those items are coming enabled us to allow space for those items without having to go back and re-set the entire candy section or throw off our flow.
“If you look right now,” Barker continues, there are two facings of Hershey’s with Almonds because they have a new one coming out that is a Hershey’s Nut Lovers that is a permanent product. So we’re making a spot for that. It will go right in line where it needs to go, because it really should follow the traditional Hershey Almond,” she adds.
“To make space for it now, to give it a good visual spot in our set ahead of time is huge. Otherwise it gets stuck wherever you’ve got space,” says Barker.
Keeping the plan-o-gram consistent and well organized is particularly important, says Barker, because the company has an extremely high base of repeat customers.
“Almost 70 percent of our customers are repeat customers, which is strong,” she says. So that customer knows where we keep Twix candy bars, knows where we keep Doublemint Gum.
“The integrity of the plan-o-gram is important to us for managing the category and for keeping the product fresh,” says Barker. “And for the customer’s benefit as well.”
Lots of candy
One of the things a visitor to a Maverick Mart notices right off the bat is the number of places that candy can be found within the store thanks to an ample assortment of strategically positioned floor-stand and countertop display shippers. This has the dual advantage of putting candy within ready reach for store patrons as well as allowing Maverick to capitalize on the vendor rebates that accompany shipper commitments.
Cook is quick to credit Eby-Brown’s role in the chain’s candy merchandising successes — and the company’s role in making new product decisions, supplying product movement data, setting shipper programs and more.
“It’s a collaboration — between Eby-Brown and us,” he says. … “The magic is trying to meld everything together … getting the new items moved in with the existing SKUs, satisfying everybody’s SKU requirements in terms of allowances and rebates, and positioning it in the store so it sells. We don’t have it down to a science, but I think we’re getting better at it.”
Under Barker’s attentive direction, merchandising display shippers is a well managed process. Shippers are carefully scheduled; store personnel ensure that they are in place on the first of each month and off the floor — in order to make room for the next month’s offerings — by the 30th of the month.
Sell-though in 21 days is optimal, says Barker. “That’s what we shoot for, and I’d say that 50 percent to 75 percent of our shippers probably hit that,” she notes.
“Three weeks into your exposure,” she continues, “if you haven’t sold three-fourths of the shipper, you’ve got to move it; you’ve got to change it because something is not working for you.”
“As a retailer,” Barker continues, “I think that shippers are a great way to introduce new items, a great way to get that extra impulse sale, but you’ve got to keep an eye on them. You can’t take them for granted.”
Of course, very little is taken for granted at Maverick Marts — especially when it comes to the consumer. Cook even schedules periodic “Customer Appreciation Days,” which offer mart patrons promotionally priced food and beverages and other treats and is staffed by Maverick managers.
Members of the Maverick team definitely get into having a little fun with candy.
“I told our managers that they were all going to get a $100,000 bonus,” notes Barker. “Then I sent each of them a 100 Grand candy bar with a thank-you note.”
For the PayDay lottery ticket, Maverick Marts ran a promo offering, what else but a PayDay candy bar with the ticket purchase? The company purchased the candy on a deal from Eby-Brown, so the cost was minimal, “but it generated some excitement, created some traffic,” Barker reflects.
Maverick also does cross promotions with candy and beverages as well as your basic, “three for 99 cents” offers on candy. Thanks to the warm temperatures in Florida, those offers typically run on non-chocolate items rather than candy bars.
“Unless you’ve got two people with you, you’re probably not going to pick up three chocolate bars for 99 cents when it’s 90 degrees outside,” Barker notes.
In terms of merchandise assortment, the Maverick Marts are adding some additional sweets and snacks targeted to Hispanic consumers. “It’s becoming a larger piece of our business,” says Barker.
The high concentration of tourists in both the Orlando and Fort Lauderdale markets also affects candy assortment decisions. “We have to look at not only what’s hot in the Southeast or the rest of the United States, we have to keep abreast of what’s going on all over. So I try to read and research and really pay attention to market trends, not just for the Southeast, but for the global customer,” she notes.
When making assortment and merchandising decisions, she also keeps the chain’s female-dominated demographic in mind. “I like to tell our managers that I am a typical convenience store consumer,” says Barker. “I have two kids. I have soccer practice and piano lessons and guitar lessons and basketball practice and team sports, and I’m a team mom. And I work 80 hours a week. There are things that I look to that convenience store for. What’s new and what’s hot? If I’m picking up kids from soccer practice, what can I get that I know they’ll like?”
One suggestion: check out that new and improved Maverick Mart candy set. It’s clearly a can’t miss proposition.
Succeeding with Shippers
Marketing consultant Jim Callahan, president of Convenience Store Solutions, Newnan, Ga., has played a role in developing candy display shipper sales within the Florida Maverick Mart stores. Callahan offers the following advice for maximizing shipper sales.
1. Get the shipper onto the store floor as soon as possible. (You’d be surprised how many shippers sit in the storage area for weeks after they’ve arrived.)
2. Make the shipper readily visible to the consumer by positioning it in a prime traffic area.
3. Ensure that the shipper incorporates eye-catching point-of-sale materials that clearly communicate the offering. Even if the vendor does not provide it, the retailer can generate it.
4. Don’t limit signage to the shipper. Install it in locations such as soft drink cooler doors, store doors and — believe it or not — “eye high in the rest room.” (Talk about a captive audience, Callahan quips.)
5. Encourage store staffers to do some “suggestive selling,” reminding customers of the candy offerings on sale.
Meet the ‘Maverick’
After graduating from Columbia University, Kevin Cook began working in the marketing division of Mobil Oil Co. in New York City, eventually moving into operations as the area manager for all Mobil gas stations in Manhattan and the Bronx. In 1984, when Mobil acquired Sonoco, Cook was transferred to Florida with the mandate of converting about 100 Sonoco stations to Mobil stations. When that task was accomplished, Mobil was ready to transfer him back to the Northeast, but Cook decided to stay in Florida and start his own business.
When it came time to choose a name for the company, Cook opted for “Maverick” in homage to a term a supervisor at Mobil had once applied during a performance appraisal discussion.
Running a convenience-store business has never been a spectator sport for Cook. “When I left Mobil, I started with one store, and I ran it hands-on,” he says. “That’s where you get your education. By placing the orders every week you can see what sells and what doesn’t sell. I guess it’s kind of on-the-job training, baptism by fire.”
Nineteen years after he started his business, he’s still closely connected with day-to-day operations and in close contact with the members of the Maverick operations team. “It’s truly a 24/7, 365-day-a-year career,” he reflects.
Position: President, Maverick Management Inc.
Family: Wife, Laura. Kids: Kevin, 18; Kara, 16: Kelsey, 15; Kylie, 13; Kassidy, 10; and Kendall, 8.
Best Part About Having Your Own Business: “The flexibility it affords you in terms of making your own schedule and decisions.”
The Down Side: “When you work for yourself, the boss can be unreasonable!”
Words to Live By: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Shop Talk and More with the Operations Manager
Melissa Barker hasn’t hit 40 yet, but already she has racked up 22 years of retail experience. That experience starts with clerking and also includes working as a store manager, an auditor and a training supervisor.
Barker comes to Maverick from Jacksonville, Fla., where she was employed by First Coast Energy, a large gasoline wholesaler. Her career includes 14 years with Star Enterprises (Texaco), four years with Circle K, and a couple of years working as a private consultant.
Position: Operations Manager
Family: Divorced mother of two daughters, Candace, 19, and Christina, 15.
Academic Credentials: Degrees in marketing and business from Georgia State University
Outside Interests: Tennis, reading, and working on the restoration of her recently purchased, 85-year-old home in Winterhaven, Fla.
Words to Live By: “The customer is never the interruption in our work; they’re the reason for it.” and “Keep the balance between family and work.”