For St. Patrick’s Day this year, Stewart’s Shops unveiled the Shenanigan Shake, a mint-flavored limited-time-only addition to its Refresher line of packaged dairy drinks. “It was wildly popular,” said Erica Komorske, director of public affairs at the convenience store chain, which boasts more than 350 locations in New York and Vermont. “People went crazy for it.” In fact, thanks to the strong response to Stewart’s first-ever holiday-themed Refresher, it likely won’t be the chain’s last, Komorske revealed.
Despite the challenges of space, logistics and most recently supply, c-stores are embracing the opportunity to drive impulse sales through seasonal and holiday merchandising efforts. “We typically see an 8 to 10% lift in candy sales while selling seasonal items,” remarked Michele Truelove, vice president of operations at High’s convenience stores in the Mid-Atlantic, pointing to items like Reese’s Eggs for Easter and Reese’s Trees for Christmas. And when it comes to tying general merchandise into seasonal promotions, such as holiday gifts and stocking stuffers, the chain often experiences gains of more than 10%, she said.
Just as with the iconic Hess toy trucks, unique merchandise offers can transform c-stores from roadside stops into destinations. For the past three years, Stewart’s has offered its own holiday tree ornaments that have appealed to customer nostalgia. “People have grown up with the Stewart’s brand and want to adorn their holiday trees with ornaments that depict it,” Komorske said. “The ornament usually sells out by mid-December.”
It’s not just stores that benefit from holiday merchandising. According to Ruth Ann Lilly, vice president of merchandising and marketing at GPM Investments, which operates c-stores in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., “seasonal merchandising makes it easier for our customers who want to purchase gifts to celebrate holidays. C-stores offer the last-minute ease of picking up a seasonal offering without the hassle of going to a mall or department store.”
Fourth quarter spending on impulse purchases tends to be higher than that of the previous quarters."
At Country Corner Grocery & Deli in Eastsound, Washington, manager Liz Longworth said that while her shop benefits from customer impulse buys around holidays like Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day, the merchandising “is fun for our staff, which is so important these days. It can be special to see our crew get excited about something, do something new and to work as a team.”
DÉCOR AND DISPLAYS
Holiday and seasonal décor—ranging from simple to extravagant—helps retailers set the tone for the periodic merchandising programs. Stewart’s Shops dresses up its windows with decorations like hearts for Valentine’s Day and painted artwork from the stores’ own staff for the winter holidays. Last year’s ornaments were merchandised as part of holiday displays just inside the front doors, Komorske said, so that planned purchases were supplemented with impulse buys. “People may have seen the ornaments promoted on social media and came to the store to purchase,” she explained. “And once they were there, they also picked up some milk, ice cream or a sandwich.”
Country Corner gets decked out for Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. In December, garland and icicles adorn the store’s windows, while a holiday tree is merchandised with giftware items including coloring books, crayons, stuffed animals and winter wear. “We decorate like crazy for Halloween with creepy things like spiders and skeletons,” Longworth said. For Valentine’s Day this year, the store featured a large display at the counter that merchandised items like red wine and roses. “We tried to cater to the construction worker coming into the store after work,” she explained.
The Thumb convenience store in Scottsdale, Arizona, meanwhile, pulls out all the stops when it comes to holiday and seasonal merchandising. A display in the spring, for example, featured a large truck adorned with stuffed and ceramic bunnies, silk flowers and other items designed to fill Easter baskets. According to Carole Gibbons, retail buyer and manager, The Thumb also celebrates Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day with elaborate displays. “We incorporate as much everyday merchandise as possible” into the displays, Gibbons noted, and promote the holidays on social media.
Multi-unit operators tend to focus on more limited queues. For High’s, it’s seasonal items like stocking stuffers, Hostess snack cakes and its own Heritage eggnog and eggnog ice cream, which Truelove described as having a “cult following.” At GPM, select stores sold Valentine’s Day novelties earlier this year, such as glasses, jewelry, plush toys, key chains and cards. Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas additionally receive support via special merchandise, Lilly said. “We also offer beachwear and fishing gear during the summer and winter clothing during the colder months,” she added.
We typically see an 8 to 10% lift in candy sales while selling seasonal items."
There’s no better way to drive margins around holiday-themed merchandising than with foodservice tie-ins. Specialty coffees such as pumpkin spice flavors and pumpkin lattes are featured at Stewart’s and Country Corner. High’s promotes a mint chocolate chip milkshake around St. Patrick’s Day, and “during Lent, we have an increased seafood offering,” Truelove said. The Thumb’s extensive foodservice features include an in-house bakery and dine-in barbecue restaurant, allowing for a variety of seasonal treats. “On the Fourth of July, we do burgers and hotdogs,” Gibbons remarked, “and on Thanksgiving, we roast turkeys.”
For chains that offer LTO food and beverage items, consistency across locations is imperative. “You want to be sure that the pumpkin latte that a customer purchases at his local store is the same one he gets when traveling,” said David Karel, chief marketing officer at Zenput, a technology firm that provides a platform to help retailers execute operational programs and whose clients include GPM, Timewise, Stinker Stores and MAPCO. With Zenput technology, store managers receive detailed descriptions, menus and photos via tablets to help undertake seasonal programming. With any type of chainwide holiday or seasonal promotion, good communication is vital. “Don’t take anything for granted,” advised Tom Hart, industry specialist, convenience, at Zenput. He recommends operations executives “over communicate. Lay out the plans and provide as many visuals as possible.”
Good planning is also critical. According to Max Wunderle, chief commercial officer at Toysmith, marketer of impulse toys, convenience retailers should be reviewing and finalizing holiday offers by mid-summer. When placing those orders, he advised retailers, “Don’t be afraid of high price points,” noting that fourth-quarter spending on impulse purchases tends to be higher than that of the previous quarters. “Don’t leave money on the table.” Proper forecasting is also necessary, Wunderle added. “Don’t commit to buying in heavy on merchandise you can’t sell in January,” he said.
High’s Truelove agreed that planning and timing are big factors when it comes to seasonal programing. “We have a very short window to sell these items,” she said. “Trying to make sure we get the items in early and they’re out on the sales floor has become more challenging due to the pandemic.” For High’s and other c-stores, selling through the merchandise is always the goal. When they fall short, discounting or repurposing may be necessary. Longworth will sometimes donate overstock items to local daycare facilities.
With the success of seasonal and holiday merchandising on the rise, convenience retailers see expanded opportunities ahead. Lilly sees potential in promotions tied to Thanksgiving and back-to-school shopping, occasions rarely highlighted by c-stores. “Customers seem to be looking for more reasons to celebrate,” added Truelove. “It seems like pumpkin spice season starts earlier and earlier every year. We see opportunity in taking advantage of extended seasons.”