February 2017


Got Holidays?

Bruce Horovitz

Dad always liked to surprise. This habit came wrapped, like a gift, in his DNA. So you can imagine my childish glee at age eight, on an otherwise nondescript Saturday toward the end of October, when Dad walked into the house and handed small, brown bags to me and each of my two sisters, while uttering these unfamiliar words: “Happy Sweetest Day!”

None of us had ever heard of Sweetest Day. But who cared? I couldn’t believe all the treasures that were stuffed into the bag. Bazooka bubble gum. Chuckles candies. Red wax lips—that were edible. Life Savers. And, yes, baseball cards. (My sisters got trading cards.)

My point: Unexpected holidays can have unexpected impact.

With the holiday season in the rearview mirror, it may seem silly to even think about holidays right now. But if you’re a c-store owner looking for any competitive edge, you’d better do just that. No, this isn’t about the recent Christmas season, but about less familiar holidays that you can embrace later in the year—or even small holidays or special occasions that you can easily turn into an event just for your c-store.

Quasi-silly holidays, such as one celebrating Leap Year Day, will work only if they connect to your store or brand—and how cleverly you can promote them.”

“What retailers do best is try to get people to spend money when they wouldn’t otherwise spend money,” says Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a retail consulting firm. “That’s what holidays do.”

Perhaps this is why researchers at Synchrony Financial, a consumer financial service company, say that one of the retail world’s most compelling trends is the recent uptick in creation of new retail holidays. Sure, Synchrony’s research was focused on the more high-profile invented holidays, such as the “Singles Day” holiday created by The Alibaba Group, which logged more than $17.8 billion in 2016. Or Amazon's “Prime Day,” which Amazon created in the summer of 2015—and repeated with even more success in 2016, which ranked as its biggest-ever sales day.

Talk about trendsetters: C-stores were doing this kind of thing long before Alibaba or Amazon. Take industry giant 7-Eleven, which created a holiday out of thin air back in 2002, by cleverly linking it to its own name. The company took the date ascribed to its name, July 11, and designated that as Slurpee’s official birthday: 7-Eleven Day. On this date each year, 7-Eleven stores hand out millions of free Slurpees, even as the deal-seeking folks who wait in line for them generally purchase lots of other stuff. The retailer handed out 9 million frozen drinks on its most recent birthday, says spokeswoman Dia Pennington.

On a smaller scale, back in 2008, Wawa created Hoagiefest, an early summer campaign that celebrates the hoagie with special price promotions and events.

You don’t have to be an Alibaba or an Amazon—or even a 7-Eleven or a Wawa—to create a local holiday that brings in business. Key, however, is to keep any invented holiday or special occasion true to your brand. And, of course, use low-budget social media and simple but visible in-store signage to promote it.

“It’s important to start with research about your brand and your customers,” says Carlos Campos, vice president at Synchrony Financial. “You must also evaluate whether your brand has the personality to be playful and whether your product line affords you the right opportunity to make up a holiday around your product or service.”

The options are many. C-stores can build sales events or holidays around iconic products, anniversaries or even the birthday of the founder, says Campos. Or perhaps, he suggests, a c-store can tie in some promo to a local festival or seasonal activity.

Locally themed holidays or events can be especially effective in the winter months, when c-store business typically wanes, Stern suggests. This is the time of year, he says, when c-store owners need to “dive into the community” to find out what’s new at the local high school. “Or ask, is there some community event, like the birthplace of a city or town that I can make something out of?” he suggests.

Quasi-silly holidays, such as one celebrating Leap Year Day, will work only if they connect to your store or brand—and how cleverly you can promote them, he says.

Some seldom-celebrated holidays are already sitting out there—just waiting to be celebrated at c-stores, Stern says. Key, he says, is to do something unusual around that particular holiday which “makes it your own.” For example, on Arbor Day, a c-store could celebrate sustainability or environmental awareness by promoting locally produced food items. And employees could get involved by all wearing green to work, he says.

The risk, of course, is overkill.

Stern warns that if c-store holidays feel too much like “Hallmark holidays,” which often tend to benefit the retailer more than the buyer, your customers may turn on you. For that matter, he warns, you never want to create a small, local holiday that ultimately cuts into the merchandising or promotional time of a traditionally successful holiday.

Should some c-store owner ask me what holiday to event, well, I’d point them smack in the direction of my 19-year-old daughter, Rachel. As a kid, few things bugged Rachel more than the fact that while there was a holiday for moms (Mother’s Day) and for dads (Father’s Day), there was no holiday specifically created and named just for kids. (Christmas is for everyone.)

“Why is there no Kid’s Day?” she often asked me, in some frustration.

Answer: Because nobody thought of it. Perhaps there’s some savvy c-store out there that would like to create it for her—and cash in?

Bruce Horovitz

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer and marketing consultant, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at brucehorovitz@gmail.com. His monthly “EndCap” column calls out trends and ideas that should be on your radar as you look to the future.