Village Pantry: True To Its People
By Renee M. Covino
Regional c-store operator Village Pantry has the advantage of just that: playing specifically to its consumers in the Central Indiana/Western Ohio regions.
Full-sugared soda pop, tobacco and the lottery — these are the mainstays of Indianapolis-based Village Pantry LLC. What’s more, “We still do well with fried chicken and doughnuts,” maintains Kent Raphael, vice president of merchandising.
If this sounds like a “business of vices” — so be it. The Central Indiana/Western Ohio chain is not ashamed of the fact that it continues to stay true to a Midwest clientele that is “pretty traditional” in the c-store sense of the word, candy included.
“If our customers wanted $8-a-pound candy bars, I’d put them in, but they don’t,” says Raphael, an 18-year veteran of the convenience store industry, formerly a director of purchasing for one of the largest independently operated convenience store chains in the country, The Pantry, with over 1,400 stores — not to be confused with the more modest-sized chain he merchandises now. The Village Pantry, with 154 stores, is a division of Marsh Supermarkets (one of the largest regional grocery chains in the United States), but the c-store operation is run completely independently from the parent grocer, despite the fact that the sister grocery and c-stores may sometimes operate in the same shopping center lot.
When it comes to candy, Village Pantry customers are not likely to jump on any health or premium chocolate bandwagons that have been making their way across the country lately. Despite the highly touted dark chocolate craze, “milk still dominates the rack in our stores,” says Raphael. “A lot of people around here don’t like dark chocolate, and we don’t see a wave of customers buying it for health values. We also don’t have people clamoring for premium candy.”
But just because this chain’s core customers are traditional in taste, that doesn’t give the candy racks, or any other rack in the store for that matter, license to remain stagnant. It actually works quite the contrary at Village Pantry, which stays true to its customers by keeping up with their tastes, and adjusting merchandise sets accordingly.
Going back to the chocolate example, “specialty bars come out all the time, especially from Hershey and Mars,” according to Raphael. “I don’t think our customers mind trying something different, but primarily what they try is still milk chocolate.” And Raphael knows this because the chain reviews its mix annually, with a six-month evaluation in between.
“We do a major reset every year — it was strategically timed around the Candy Show in June — but we will move it in the future with the show’s move,” says Raphael.
Not unlike other retailers who have been in the candy business for awhile, Village Pantry has noticed taste and flavor preferences change slowly over the years. “Twenty years ago, the Cherry Lifesaver was a big deal; today it’s not, and that kind of change happens very subtly,” says Raphael. In the gum section, Juicy Fruit and Doublemint are still top sellers (Doublemint is in the top five) “but brands like Orbit and Polar Ice” are clearly on top now, according to him.
“When we’re working on a candy set, we’re not so much trying to get every new item out; we can’t, there’s too many,” Raphael says. Instead, “We have to be keenly aware of the changes in shifting consumer preferences and alert to our customer preferences. Many times, it’s very gradual.”
The major annual reset is a time when the Village Pantry formally sits down and examines all candy category numbers. Six months later, it informally evaluates “what else is out there, if a particular manufacturer has come out with something our customer would like, and if we need to conduct a minor reset at that time,” according to Raphael.
At press time, here’s how some of the categories were panning out, in Raphael’s words.
Mints/gum is “where the bulk of the change is. Right now there are more new items in gum and mints than chocolate. It has changed to be a bit bigger business in the sugar-free items. Tic Tac, Breath Saver and Mentos seem to be on top. Eclipse mints are doing better than expected.”
Sugar free is “doing much better than it used to. Innovative Candy Concepts has come out with items that don’t have refined sugar. The Too Tarts Goo and other items without refined sugar are in the top 20, so we see some growth there. They are geared to little kids, but we see our parents picking them up, too. It’s certainly an important-enough category to make sure it stays up-to-date.”
Chocolate — “not a lot seems to be happening here. Reese’s Cups and Snickers are still on top. Three Musketeers is strong.”
Non-chocolate “has not produced many surprises, except one slice of a surprise is that Starburst is no longer number one. Mike and Ike and Baby Bottle Pop are on top.”
Theater boxes “are doing very well. We are located near a lot of movie theaters, so we’re probably providing a good amount of candy when our people go to the movies.”
Bagged/pegged candy “continues to be strong for us, and that is dominated by Reese’s Pieces. It’s probably No. 1 right now. Two-for-a-dollar items from Sathers also are strong, especially with gummy items. In branded selections after Reese’s, Jr. Kisses are doing well, then M&M peanut, Sour Patch Kids. There’s a good mix of chocolate and non-chocolate.”
Private label is non-existent at Village Pantry for “volume and purchasing reasons. We have 154 stores; that’s not enough volume, plus I don’t know if we could come up with private label bagged candy that’s better than Sathers.”
100-calorie bars/nutrition bars — “I don’t boycott them, but they just don’t sell like the richer items — chocolate and cookies. Most of our customers see them as tasteless and lifeless. There’s really no volume to speak of in the category for us.”