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  • Writer's pictureMike Lawshe

Q&A With Mike Lawshe

Updated: Mar 20

as seen in The SSCS Blog

SSCS: Can you talk in general about the design challenges unique to petroleum-based retail design?

Mike Lawshe: The effect of accumulated industry history creates some of the biggest challenges. By that I mean retailers come at design from the perspective of what they already know. Because the industry is so competitive they feel more secure with what is familiar and are reluctant to stray from it.

As a result, they have a tendency to imitate what they see around them, even if it not particularly well-suited to their retail interests, maybe copying the form of an oil company that isn’t particularly adept at marketing or implementing a retail concept. At the opposite end, there are those that desire to imitate the best without understanding what makes those stores effective or possessing the core competencies to adapt the concept effectively.

This means our job is not only to match a design to the needs of the customer, but to execute the design effectively. Sometimes a proprietor doesn’t want to hear that they are incapable of effective execution, which is at the heart of the challenge we face.

SSCS: What are some mistaken assumptions your customers and prospects make about design?

ML: Food Service programs immediately come to mind. Many proprietors—some of who fancy themselves to be chefs—think it’s an easier concept to pull off than it really is. To successfully install Food Service means successfully understanding the processes and flows related to it. Unfortunately, many don’t, and as a result we are asked to design these elaborate systems—something more suited to a short order restaurant—that the business will never be able to pull off. Maybe it’s because the business lacks the core competencies. Maybe it’s because the concept doesn’t fit into the store’s culture, customer demographics, or location layout. Often it comes back to what we were talking about earlier: they see something they like and want to force it into their operation even though it doesn’t fit.

There are also times when a proprietor may not realize the financial realities of a program. Let’s take the roller grill as an example. Some of the most successful stores and chains in the industry have magnificent roller grill programs, to the point where they’ve been expanded to maybe a half a dozen grills. An operator’s eyes light up when they see the program in action and they desperately want to install one, but they don’t understand that it may take six to 12 months to get volume to a point where a system of such scope is profitable. They fill the grills on the first day, and when they don’t sell out cut the volume in half, and when that doesn’t sell out they cut it in half again. They’re selling not to lose instead of initiating a slow build that ultimately will end in healthy revenues.

SSCS: In general terms, are there any design best practices that petroleum retailers should follow?

ML: To me the three basics are understanding your demographic, conducting an accurate foot traffic flow analysis, and building each of your store programs to be the best it can be at addressing the desires of the identified customer base. Let me explain that in a little more detail.

The first action anyone should undertake when building a new store or updating an existing one is performing a detailed demographic study of the location. Too many people think they can build the exact same thing they saw in a different part of town and make it work. That’s not true. You have to know from where your store traffic is coming. Are you a beer store or a lunch store? Are you a morning store or a night store?

Once you identify your demographic, you can set about doing a couple of things. The first is establishing an effective, profitable foot traffic analysis that allows you to design effective retail flow through. For example, according to NACS averages, more than 38 percent of foot traffic is destined for the walk-in cooler. That means you want to use the cooler to pull people deep into the store and give them the opportunity to pass by the largest possible selection of products to consider for purchase.

Then you have to find out how you can do a better job catering to your demographic than your competitors. If it is determined that the store is a beer location, you try to design the ultimate beer cave, but you can’t be naïve how easy that is, because it’s not. It’s about lighting and environment and temperature—there are a lot of elements that go into a superior beer cave presentation. This kind of thoughtful analysis has to be applied to every profit center in the store.

SSCS: Do your customers and prospects come to you with a set idea of what it is they need your help to accomplish, or is it more nebulous than that?

ML: We find that a lot of times that people who are interested in our help don’t have a clear picture of the realities of their own operation. They may sense something is amiss, but they can’t identify it precisely and don’t know its extent.

Our initial step is to come out and to evaluate their site with the intention of helping them identify the problem and provide some steps to address it. We’ll map out a short-term and a long-term strategy. Examples of short-term issues might be missing key product lines and weak merchandising practices, problems that can be rectified with little to no financial investment.

Once you get through these kinds of basics, you start moving to address the more complex, creative stuff from the store’s holistic perspective.

We always listen to what the customer has to say first, then we try to educate them. The education part is critical. We hand-hold them and walk them through the entire process. Together you have to dig deep into the operation, of which there are many layers.

The easiest thing in the world for an operator to do is to repeat the same thing he or she did last time. We know our clients are incredibly busy. The last thing they need is another new challenge that they aren’t particularly well-equipped to address. I mean, how often does a proprietor design a store? So what we ask them to do is to venture out of their comfort zone and let us guide them through a process that allows them to reach higher and farther than they ever have before. The process is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but the results are immensely rewarding in more ways than one.


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