Delivering Value

C-store wholesaler partners go beyond orders and dropping off products.

Delivering Value

October 2019

By: Terri Allan

At Columbia Distributing Co., a major beverage distributor with operations in Oregon, Washington and California, executives say their convenience store customers can expect them to go the extra mile. “The largest check our c-store partners write each month is to Columbia Distributing,” explained Mike Specht, senior vice president of sales for Oregon and California. “As a result, we have to do a heck of a job ensuring that they have the right products and that they’re in stock.” According to Specht, the Portland-based distributor holds close to a 70% share of the local beer market, a 20% share of the local wine market and a 33% stake in the energy drinks category, while also handling brands such as 7 Up, Snapple and Fiji Water.

Indeed, wholesalers of all shapes and forms know that in such a competitive retail market, it’s incumbent upon them to, well, overdeliver when servicing their c-store accounts. “Today’s c-store retailer expects more than distributor partners who get products from Point A to Point B,” remarked George Bennett, vice president, sales and marketing, at S. Abraham & Sons (SAS), which services some 3,000 c-stores in several Midwest and eastern states.

Beyond taking orders and delivering products, c-store wholesalers often serve as category advisors, help introduce new products, provide and sometimes display point-of-sale materials and offer educational programming, not to mention dropping off special deliveries of much-needed merchandise.

Category Management Investments

C-store wholesalers have emerged as dependable resources for category management insights. SAS, for example, provides complimentary merchandising assistance that utilizes scan data to provide space-to-sales analysis for retailers and full, customized planograms. According to Bennett, the analysis can determine if a c-store is “over- or under-indexing” on certain categories, including those that SAS doesn’t carry. “A store could be allocating 12% of its space to automotive products when that category only represents 8% of sales,” he explained, “or 22% of its space to salty snacks, which account for 27% of its sales.”

At Harold Levinson Associates (HLA), meanwhile, category-management analytics are generated by ZIP code. “That guarantees that items will turn quicker,” said Marty Glick, vice president of sales at HLA, which services about 7,000 c-stores in six eastern states.

Today’s c-store retailer expects more than distributor partners who get products from Point A to Point B.

Eby-Brown Co., the Naperville, Illinois-based c-store distributor of candy, snacks and tobacco products, offers two different category-management solutions for its customers, based on their size. According to Curt O’Rourke, executive vice president, merchandising and procurement, the company’s SmartProcess program—for accounts with 10 or more stores—“is designed to ensure our customers are provided with site-specific, best-in-class planograms and assortment offerings,” by leveraging multiple data points and the latest merchandising techniques. For customers with fewer than 10 stores, Eby-Brown offers Category Insights magazine, which provides a “deep-dive into all categories,” including trends and consumer insights, O’Rourke said.

McLane Co., meanwhile, invites c-store operators to its Center for Category Innovation in Temple, Texas, where retailers, manufacturers, brokers and representatives of the Texas-based distributor collaborate on comprehensive planograms. Chad Dewberry, product director, foodservice, at McLane, noted that the foundations for the center are “philosophies rooted in unbiased category management,” and that the meetings utilize “multiple data points and experts from across the field.”

Aside from those related to deliveries, Columbia Distributing’s category management center is the company’s biggest investment, according to Travis Anders, vice president of chain store sales. The center, which staffs 12 full-time category managers, has the ability to set plans and build schematics for every one of its accounts, Anders noted, including independent and chain stores. For c-stores, the company provides a “reverse planogram,” useful for employees stocking coolers from the inside. Specht added that because Columbia services all types of retail accounts and has access to syndicated data, “we can advise c-stores on what sells at groceries down the street and at local bars and cafés.”

Educational Support

Like other DSD vendors, Columbia is tasked with rotating products to ensure freshness. The company also advises on impactful merchandising. “Things that disrupt in grocery can be ineffective in c-stores,” Specht remarked. “So we rely on shopper insights that drive the decisions.” The distributor also offers c-store operators customized in-window and in-store signage, promoting items such as “two fors or hot 18-packs,” he said. Eby-Brown, meanwhile, provides professional point-of-sale packets that include interactive signs, clings, danglers, stickers and pump toppers, according to O’Rourke.

Educational support is another area where wholesalers provide added value for convenience retailers, including product expertise. Columbia Distributing likely has the most experience selling craft beer to retailers of any beer wholesaler in the country, due to the high market share crafts hold in the Northwest and the many craft SKUs the company represents, Specht said. And while wine is a relatively new category for Columbia—the company took on statewide rights for Constellation Brands’ wine and spirits in Oregon and Washington last year—he notes that its sales team has been immersing itself in wine education and is willing to pass that knowledge along to c-store operators.

Lean in on your distributor networks. They’re getting more and more sophisticated and can provide analytical tools and services.

SAS, HLA and Eby-Brown, meanwhile, host regular trade shows for c-store partners to educate on best practices and new products. According to Jordan Wuorinen, retail merchandising manager at SAS, each year the company hosts a general trade show featuring 250 vendors and new items, a summer foodservice showcase and an invitation-only chain-store show for 25 vendors and 25 leading chains, most of which are c-stores. Dennis Williams, director of purchasing at HLA, said his company’s three annual shows, held at convention centers, typically feature a full model c-store and some 150 vendor booths. “They’re not just sales shows, they’re educational shows,” Williams said. And McLane’s virtual tradeshow system offers “aggressive promotions on new items and provides deals throughout the year on items in all categories,” said Teresa Voelter, product director, Consumer Value Products, adult beverages and e-commerce. The company also is planning a technology conference for retailers in February.

Other value-added services from wholesalers include control-label brands, such as those offered by McLane. “They provide customers with more than 250 items that bring high quality, low cost and outstanding margins,” Voelter said. Eby-Brown offers retailer incentive programs, such as monthly rebates, as well as annual retail rebate contracts, according to O’Rourke. At HLA—whose New York headquarters features a c-store foodservice and beverage-dispensing model—representatives provide consulting on issues ranging from legislation to taxes to foodservice licensing, Glick noted.

Linchpin for New Products

C-store wholesalers are invaluable conduits between manufacturers and retailers when new products are launched. Making room for and getting those new brands into stores quickly can mean the difference between a successful launch and a bust. SAS’s “Pacesetter” program is designed so that c-stores are first to market with new products. Marie Wise, director of marketing, pointed to the Kit Kat Duos brand, slated to launch in December, as an example. “With our ‘Pacesetter’ program, c-stores have the ability to get early orders shipped and to be first on the street,” she said. Similarly, Eby-Brown works with its vendors and brokers to allow c-stores to receive a new innovation on the first available date, O’Rourke offered.

Wholesalers also have made tremendous efforts to make product delivery as pain free as possible for retailers, particularly when out-of-stock situations arise. HLA offers delivery six days a week in New York City, for example, including same-day delivery, if needed, according to Williams. While Columbia generally provides weekly service, orders can be delivered in 24 hours, Specht said. And at Core-Mark International, Chris Murray, senior vice president of marketing, noted that the company’s investment in a multi-temperature supply chain has been “a game changer for our customers. It has allowed them to consolidate DSD vendor deliveries through Core-Mark and to receive more frequent deliveries.”

We can advise c-stores on what sells at groceries down the street and at local bars and cafés.

Bells and whistles aside, there’s no getting around the fact that the most vital role a wholesaler plays is efficiently getting the right products to its customers. “While it’s not sexy, the most important thing we do is take and deliver orders,” said Specht. “It’s the foundation of the distribution business.” In recent years, technology has improved the process. Eby-Brown and McLane, for example, now offer mobile ordering apps. Among the benefits to retailers, according to Deon Johnson, vice president of customer technology at McLane, is less time placing orders and more time focusing on customers.

C-store wholesaler partners urge retailers to take advantage of all the extra services available to them. “Lean in on your distributor networks,” advised Specht. “They’re getting more and more sophisticated and can provide analytical tools and services.” HLA’s Williams agreed. “C-stores are not an easy business,” he said. “It’s not only about prices. Value-added services from distributors can make a difference.”

Terri Allan

Terri Allan

Terri Allan is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. She can be reached at and on Twitter at @terriallan.