Revisited: When “C” stands for “change” at the convenience store

A warning light recently lit up on the dashboard of my car. It was a bearded “U” with an exclamation point in the middle. Either I needed to stop immediately for a game of horseshoes with Zach Galifianakis, or else there was something wrong with one of my tires. I looked at the owner’s manual and found out the indicator was indicating I might be having an issue with tire pressure.        

I’m old enough to remember that you used to be able to pull into a gas station and have the problem checked out by a certified attendant. Nowadays, there aren’t many true “gas stations” left, since virtually everyone pumps their own gas outside a convenience store. You could ask the semi-toothed cashier if they would “check your air,” but their response would probably involve trying to sell you a pine-scented freshener from their wide selection of aromatic danglers.        

The modern convenience store really does live up to its name. As you’re fueling your car, you can also do a quick bit of shopping for those essentials you didn’t realize you needed until you came across them in the brightly lit bustle of the “C-store.” It’s like a mini-Walmart, with the scent of spilled gasoline ably playing the role of store greeter.        

At a single stop, you can buy Beanie Weenies, roach spray, steel wool, toothpicks, frozen chimichangas, Earthquake brand high-gravity lager, gloves, Axe body spray, a mechanical pencil, pliers, something called “gum-out,” a can of boiled peanuts, satin roses, Sasquatch big sticks (an extremely cured meat product), hotdog buns, Lunchables, Bimbo colchones or cinnamon-roll-flavored cappuccino. In fact, you can buy all of these items at the same time, though the guy in line behind you will be muttering something in Spanish about “tu mama” to his fellow landscapers.        

You can also buy a 12-pack of Dr Pepper, that comes in a box that brags “now with new packaging.” (Soft drink companies have apparently given up on tweaking the formula of their sodas, and now concentrate instead on how to make the box more appealing).        

Well, that’s not the only thing with new packaging at the convenience store where I do most of my re-fueling and impulse buying. The shop itself is being transformed, from what used to be called a “Petro Express” into something the new signage calls a “Kangaroo Marathon.” (That’s a race I’d like to see.)

The corporation that owns all of these names is called The Pantry. It operates over 1,600 convenience stores throughout the Southeast and is currently in the midst of converting its 67 Charlotte-area outlets to the company’s flagship Kangaroo brand. Aside from the external signs, and the change from offering Texaco gas products to those of Marathon Oil, there will be some minor modifications inside.        

“It’s going to be different by store,” said chief financial officer Frank Paci. “Some of the stores got Petro Express wallpaper and things like that, so obviously that will change.”        

“We definitely think there is an opportunity to improve the yield of that business,” added CEO Terry Marks, none too helpfully. “It’s about pulling a thousand levers a little bit better. It’s not about pulling one or two big levers.”        

During a recent visit to my favorite Petro-cum-Kangaroo, the conversion process was kicking into high gear. Workers outside had blocked off several parking spaces so they could install a large new billboard over the entryway. Inside, at least a dozen cashiers were tripping over each other behind the counter, watching a trainer explain the new check-out terminals. Wallpaper was being stripped above the coffee machines, as customers at the self-serve struggled to avoid getting dried paste with their cream and sugar. Convenience was everywhere.    

I had to park creatively, off to the side near the kerosene pump, because the construction was taking up so much room in the parking lot. Inching past a guy teetering precariously above the automatic door, which was in a constantly rotating cycle of open and close and open and close, I managed to get inside the store. The lunch-time crush was in full swing. I maneuvered back to the iced drink dispensers while my son checked out refrigerated cases full of canned sodas. We agreed to meet back at the candy aisle before reconnoitering how to approach the growing line of people waiting to pay for their purchases.    

It was especially hot outside, so I decided to indulge in a Coke Slushy. Unfortunately, there were no Slushies to be found. Instead, the whirling mass of partially frozen liquid now had a sign labeling it as an “Icee.” What the heck is an “Icee“? I wondered. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of modern transformative change, much like that first day at work after the new global computer system was installed, except thirstier.   

I went to check on my son and found him shaking his head as he pondered the canned drink selection. It looked to me like all the familiar brands were represented, maybe just in a slightly different order. And yet Rob appeared confused and disoriented. What was the problem?   

“It’s the doors,” Rob said. “When this was a Petro Express, the handle was on the right. Now, it’s on the left.” He paused. “I … I don’t understand how to get in to the drinks.”   

Normally, this is where I might summon a manager for assistance. But I wasn’t sure that’s what they called them anymore. What if they were now called “shift captains”? Or “team leaders”? Or “Purveyors and Expediters of an Exquisite Customer Experience”?   

I saw an alcove nearby that had a water cooler, so Rob and I got our drinks there. Recessed just behind the fountain were what used to be called the “bathrooms,” but were now some exotic locale known as a “restroom.” Gone were the signs indicating which door was for men and which was for women. Now, they were only accepting “ladies” and “gentlemen.” I wasn’t sure I had the proper level of refinement to wash my hands in such splendor, so I just wiped them on my pants.   

We walked over to the candy section and managed to find what we were looking for: Airheads for Rob and M&M’s for me. The world had at least temporarily returned to its proper axis, so we took the opportunity to approach the cashiers.   

As I mentioned earlier, the store seemed way over-staffed. Usually, you’re lucky to find three people working in the entire site — one at the register, one outside on a smoke break, and one lying mortally wounded after the latest robbery attempt. To see a dozen workers hustling behind the counter was totally foreign, especially since they were now wearing orange vests instead of the customary red polo shirts of Petro. Finally, one of the ladies broke loose from the pack and prepared to serve us.   

“How are you today?” asked the woman whose nametag identified her as “Hello My Name Is Marilyn.”   

How am I today? What happened to the traditional greeting of “Can I help you?” And what have you done with my usual cashier, who I’ve come to know as “Welcome to Petro I’m Marilyn”?   

The trainer must have sensed my unease, as he stepped forward to help us complete the transaction. While he patiently walked Marilyn through the proper process steps — take the money, look at the money, enter the amount in the register, etc. — his tone calmed us as well. We got our change, we got our candy, and we got the heck out of Kangaroo before the whole store turned on its head.   

Later that night, I saw a TV commercial for Marathon Oil. Everyday, genuine Americans were pictured going about the business of their everyday, genuine lives. They rode horses, drove convertibles, splashed on a beach, laughed and romped. In the background, you could hear the Marathon theme song, presumably sung by the same cashiers I met earlier that day:   

We’re proud to stand on our own
We’re proud to be home grown
A familiar face and a name you know

We know you, we know your needs
We know what being a neighbor means
We got a reputation to uphold!

Can you hear it?
Fueling the American spirit!
No matter when, no matter where
Marathon will take you there!

I had been reassured. Despite all the differences I’d seen earlier that day, they still knew me, they still knew my needs, and they still wanted me to “c’mon” and join them in this exciting new way to buy gas and snack foods. Much like the kangaroo, I was now eager to jump at the chance and accept the challenge to change. 

Kangaroo is “hopping” to keep your business, and also to amortize a $21.3 million write-off associated with the decision to convert Charlotte-area stores
Keeping customers happy is a marathon, not a sprint

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