Retail Tomorrow: True North Stores And The Future Of Convenience
John Herbert is the Senior Category Manager of True North, a chain of convenience stores with an ever-growing footprint of locations in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Michigan. John is responsible for managing the Beer, Beverage, Dairy, Wine and Liquor Categories for over 160 locations across the US. Having been with the company for over a decade, John has had a hand in their exponential growth and expansion. As a beverage lover himself, John is integrally involved in all aspects of True North’s beverage business, from building out the marketing strategies, to overseeing floor plans and even to testing out new products for inclusion in the product assortment. We sat down with John to get his take on where retail is going and how the big players may need to make room for newcomer brands.
Q: Ground us in True North. What is your retail experience all about? And what is your role at the company?
True North is a family owned and operated company first, with a rich history here in Ohio. As a company we’ve grown recently and now own and operate 166 locations, the majority being in Ohio. However, we’ve branched out in recent years with sites in Illinois, Michigan and most recently an acquisition in Wisconsin. We have been lucky with both the Michigan and Wisconsin acquisition, being able to work with similarly positioned companies that were local, family owned operators. We’ve been able to work fast on the rebranding efforts, switching each market over to True North, with the Wisconsin rebranding starting this month. Our retail experience is grounded in a Fast, Friendly, Clean approach. We pride ourselves on the ability to be a top tier convenience retailer and that needs to be reflected in every aspect back to our customer.
I’m the Senior Category Manager overseeing beverages; beer, dairy, wine and liquor, pretty much anything behind a cooler door is how I like to explain it. I have over 12 years of experience, so I come with deep industry knowledge – and need it. Given our growth, I tackle a little bit of everything all at once. I handle all state expansions, contracts, planogramming, as well as the promotional and marketing efforts related to my categories. So I stay busy!
Q: Do you participate in branding new locations and transitioning stores to the True North brand?
Innately, my role touches marketing the True North brand, but beyond that the whole team takes an active role in merchandising each of our locations. Despite our growth, we still run the company with a small business mentality, digging in and getting our hands dirty, wearing different hats, everyone’s got a hand in the success of our business and we are all integrally involved in pushing the business forward. From gathering data, assessing cooler layouts, analyzing regional partner data etc. - I work in conjunction with everyone to ensure we run a tight ship and bring the new businesses over to our operations and procedures.
Q: How do you think about your consumers? Who do you serve and why? What inspired you to do what you’re doing? Why do you exist?
A big part of the approach to our consumer is how they relate to our employees. Recruitment and retention are crucial to the long term success of True North. There is a certain family aspect, a communality that we want to cultivate at our stores. We act differently and treat people differently than in a corporate atmosphere. In everything we do we believe a little better does really good. We also have our “True GX program” - it speaks to the personality of the company (e.g. greeting consumers, offering help if someone looks lost, making sure we have multiple pay points and people to ensure the systems are working quickly). It is our goal to make the customer experience Fast, Friendly, and Clean.
Beyond that, how we approach and think about our consumer in terms of merchandising relies on relationships, data, analytics, and execution. Being a smaller regional chain we don't have a massive data structure. So, we look at it locally, how It differs across each market and how to adjust to meet the consumer's needs. We also look outward to some of our partners and competitors. For example, we work with MolsonCoors as our Category Captain on the alcohol side, assisting us with Planogramming, analytics, and helping us to build site specific assortments that stand out from our competition. Similarly, we work with Coke on the non-alc side to the same effect. While we often look at more cutting edge retailers to get a sense of where beverage trends are going.
We also like to use scorecarding to understand the markets we are in and to see the variation in customers across the states. Although there may not be massive changes and there's a broad understanding of our core consumer, there are some regional intricacies we have to account for.
From there, we work with each of our category captains to understand what brands succeed in certain markets and not others, understand the planogram to serve each segment and execute assortment strategies from there. We've invested a lot into “the box” (a team term for our physical stores) to get a consistent footprint so there’s a familiarity with the brand no matter where you go.
Ultimately, who we serve, what inspires us and why we exist are all intertwined in delivering the best guest experience we can, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.
Q: Who is the True North consumer?
As a convenience retailer, we don't just have one consumer, we have many. In order to dig into who we really serve, we have to look at each region, each store. Oftentimes, we rely on our internal data to understand each store's consumer and the particular demographic it’s in. If a store or a certain region outpaces the company average in one subcategory or another we know where to focus on and what assortments to expand on. The data is what really speaks to us on who the consumer is and how we react to meet their needs.
To a certain extent, we may be sitting a couple years behind some of these more edgy grocers. That said, for our channel, there's always opportunity to explore new trends and categories. For example in the better-for-you beverage category, we have had good initial success with brands like Liquid Death and Lemon Perfect. Seeing success like that helps us to understand that while we may have a general sense of how to approach our consumer, there’s always a need to look ahead at where that consumer may be heading next.
Some of what we do is competitive shopping. This helps us to understand the competitive landscape in convenience as well as some of the other channels of trade we’re up against, like grocery. The biggest piece to this is being able to take what we’ve seen or learned and figure out how to apply it back to True North. Liquid Death is again a good example. I saw them one day while I was standing in line at Whole Foods. I grabbed a couple cans and actively researched them after trying the product (which is great, and so smart). I reached out to them proactively to figure out a route to shelf for us.
This is how we approach our assortment with several of the smaller, up and coming brands we work with. And to great success. When brands like this see someone actively pursuing them, they know we want to be an active, value added partner.
We still struggle with Better For You, though. We've tested BFY sections, but found that people are still shopping the main beverage, snack or candy aisle. So, we are shifting how we approach our merchandising. Now we instead get it into our inline sections and position it next to traditional products. It seems to be working. But we’re still trying to crack the code on enticing the consumer on these newer products.
Q: How do bigger brands react to you carrying new brands that hit trends or are famous through product placement & creative marketing?
Companies like Coke or Pepsi still plant their flag firmly in the ground around space to sale - pushing for a certain percentage of cooler space, which makes it difficult for smaller brands to compete. However, we are again able to rely on the data and push back. Where either company may come in and demand space based on their market share, we have a deep understanding of their share within True North and with our customers which drives the space we devote to each company and their corresponding brands. This gives us the wiggle room to start sliding in the Lemon Perfect, Liquid Death type brands. Clearly Canadian, for example, is a brand from the 90s that we started carrying and are seeing huge success with.
Q: Are you doing anything in prepared foods? What does the future hold for True North?
We’re at times a slow moving ship but once we get going …and we’re just getting started on prepared foods with our Wisconsin locations. We're at the stage of learning what's working, what's successful and how we can scale to our other markets. We want to do it the right way, not the fast way.