September 2019

Feature

Celebrate Good Times

Turn your grand openings, anniversaries and milestones into a publicity party.
Pat Pape

Every year on July 11 (7/11), 7-Eleven stores in the U.S. and Canada invite customers inside from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time to pick up a free small Slurpee. Dubbed 7-Eleven Day, the event commemorates the birth of the convenience chain, which started in 1927 as a Dallas icehouse that also sold milk, bread and watermelons. The retailer started the free Slurpee drink birthday tradition in 2002 on its 75th birthday.

This year, with more than 68,000 outlets in 17 countries, 7-Eleven celebrated its 92nd birthday by giving away nine million free Slurpee drinks to friends and fans. “7‑Eleven Day has become the busiest day of the year for 7‑Eleven stores as millions of both existing and new customers flock to our stores to celebrate with their favorite frozen drink and other special food deals,” said Raj Kapoor, 7‑Eleven senior vice president for fresh food and proprietary beverages.

Get This Party Started

You don’t need 68,000 stores to revel in your company milestones. Every 365 days, businesses around the globe meet their targets or break records, giving them something worthy of celebrating with customers and employees.

Last fall, Pilot Flying J celebrated 60 years in business by donating $2 million to more than 20 nonprofit organizations “to support the communities we serve across the country and the causes that matter most to our team members and guests,” said Stephanie Myers, supervisor, external communications, Pilot Flying J.

“As a veteran-founded company, Pilot Flying J partners with organizations such as Hire Heroes USA, Bunker Labs, Fisher House and Folds of Honor,” she said. “Funds from the anniversary donation support veterans and their families by providing cost-free housing to those caring for injured loved ones and by connecting them with opportunities to drive future success.”

To tell the public about the anniversary, the chain held a donation announcement ceremony with local news media at its Knoxville, Tennessee, headquarters and distributed several news announcements to raise awareness. “We updated information on our website and created a video to thank our team members and guests for 60 years in business, which we shared on our social media channels,” said Myers.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of Rutter’s, the c-store chain based in York, Pennsylvania, and the company celebrated by creating its own birthday logo and printing it on LTO fountain cups, employee t-shirts and store graphics. “Our 50th was the first anniversary we’ve celebrated,” said Chris Hartman, director of fuels and forecourt, but there are more festivities in the company’s future. “We’re the oldest vertically integrated food company in the country, and the 100th anniversary of our dairy is coming up in two years.”

Hartman said the company will do all planning for that centennial celebration in-house and aims to share old photos on social media. “People like seeing the nostalgic pictures,” he said. “It helps build an even stronger bond between us and our customers. They know we’ve been around a long time, and we love serving them.”

An anniversary can be celebrated in a variety of ways, including a big party for employees and/or special offers to attract customers. When Maverik, the Salt Lake City-based retailer, turned 87 years old, management set aside one day when many items in the stores were marked down to 87 cents, including cookies, donuts, fountain drinks, small hot beverages and donuts.

On the 54th anniversary of Wawa in 2018, the Pennsylvania-based chain selected a day to give all customers a free cup of coffee—any size. Wawa also used that occasion to announce that it had donated $50 million over four years to causes focused on health, hunger and heroes.

If your chain is growing rapidly, it’s a good idea to develop a grand opening format that can easily be repeated.

Grand Openings

Opening a new store location also is an opportunity to recognize your company’s growth, thank customers and employees and publicize your business.

“A grand opening is essential for getting a store started,” said Lisa Faulkner-Dunne, president of Lisa Faulkner-Dunne and Associates, a Dallas public relations firm. “It tells the community, ‘We’re here. Come in. We want to meet you.’ I tell clients not to be overly concerned about the number of people who attend the grand opening. Your reach goes beyond that, and the word gets out.”

Every new Pilot Flying J store has a soft opening, and once the store is operating and new team members are trained, “we invite the community and community leaders in for a ribbon-cutting ceremony,” said Myers.

When talking to the news media about the new location, she makes sure to communicate not only what the store will offer customers, “but also what our economic impact will be for the community, including how many new jobs will be created at that location,” she said.

Dunne, whose clients have included 7-Eleven, Coldstone Creamery, Red Mango frozen yogurt and other retail chains, recommends using the grand opening as a fundraising event. “It gives you a chance to talk to the traditional media,” she said. “The traditional media may not be interested in another store opening, but if you’re opening a store and raising money for the local children’s hospital, people like that. It drives traffic and makes you part of the community. I always suggest there be some fundraising component to any grand opening.”

If your chain is growing rapidly, it’s a good idea to develop a grand opening format that can easily be repeated. Rutter’s has created a basic format for each store opening, which usually takes place inside the store and on the parking lot. “The CEO does a speech, we have a ribbon cutting, we provide giveaways, and we support local charities and first responders,” said Hartman. “We have a prize wheel and food sampling. Our dairy gives out milk, water and tea. Our goal is not to just be a convenience store in these communities, but to let them know we’re here to serve them and be there for the long haul.”

If you’re not opening a new store, you can always do an appreciation day once a year to engage customers and help a worthy organization. Russell’s Travel Center in eastern New Mexico hosts a fundraising car show on its large parking lot each May to raise money for local volunteer fire departments. Classic car owners pay a fee to participate, but the public is invited to attend at no charge.

“The year we opened [the travel center], this area was burning up,” said Mark Russell, director of operations. “These firefighters had to leave their paying jobs and go fight fires. I discovered that the state provides all their equipment, but there is no food allowance. So, we decided to set up a coffer for them.”

Crafting the Event

Bob Schiers, president of RAS Associates, a Philadelphia public relations firm, has organized about 1,000 grand openings, and his clients have included Walmart, Target, Sears, Macy’s and 7-Eleven.

“Today, when you do store grand openings, there are so many things that have to be factored in,” Schiers said. “First, we come up with a budget. It’s a blend of what the client can afford and what we recommend. Say you’re a 10- or 20-store chain and don’t have a mega budget, you can get customers and employees engaged through POS materials. Explain what is happening and why it's important to them, whether that means special pricing or giving them something for free. There should be continuity between messaging and marketing materials.”

Next, he recommends that the celebration have its own landing page on the company website or its own Facebook page, and that search engine optimization be used to help maximize search engine traffic.

“And always work with local, state and regional elected officials and regulators, especially if you’re an operation involved in something that is regulated, such as alcohol or petroleum,” Schiers advised. “Before a grand opening, always have an exclusive VIP opening or party, which is great for any business serving food. You can invite the news media, customers in your loyalty program and city officials. Have your management team and your chef there to greet everyone.”

Measuring ROI on public relations is never easy. The old standard was to measure the amount of publicity and determine the value of the equivalent advertising, but the internet has made that more complicated. Companies such as Agility PR Solutions in New Jersey and Meltwater of San Francisco will measure publicity for you, but the service is pricey. And not every positive result can be put on a spreadsheet.

“When we have milestones to celebrate, it is a great opportunity to honor and recognize the hard work and dedication of our team members and the loyalty of our guests,” said Myers. “This positively affects employee morale, and our team members are proud to work for a company that gives back.

“It also has an impact for our guests, supporting causes that are important to them and engaging them in our company’s growth,” she said. “Positively impacting our communities, through job creation, economic impact and giving back, is central to our culture.”

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at patpape.wordpress.com.