Ramona’s convenience store roots are in the small agricultural community of Kinkora, Prince Edward Island. Today, the family own and operate five stores in different communities and own and lease another four locations. Over the years, the family has completed several “raze and rebuild” projects and are continually looking for ways to keep their stores and offerings fresh and interesting.
“There’s a lot of competition out there and customers have higher expectations today,” says Ramona. “Our national competitors continually reinvest in their stores, so independent convenience store owners have to be creative, take risks and reinvest in their businesses in order keep their customers.”
There’s a lot of competition out there and customers have higher expectations todayRamona Roberts
“Most of our stores are in rural areas, so we have to be a little bit different,” she says. “What I tell my staff when I hire them is that if we don’t serve our local customers right then we won’t be here.”
One of the biggest changes Ramona has seen in her business is how fast customers shop today: “We call it grab-and-go,” says Ramona, “so it’s all about convenience…offering as many services as reasonably possible in a fast, easy, clean and friendly shopping environment. There also isn’t the level of customer loyalty out there today as there was 20 years ago, so you really have to deliver top-notch customer service day in and day out.”
Ramona has tried many different types of offerings over the years. Some, like the 72-bin candy display in Kinkora and ready-to-eat sandwiches and subs, have been and continue to be big winners. Others, like diners and take-out pizza, have changed with the times and were eventually replaced with new offerings…the Kinkora location most recently was awarded a private agency retail liquor license.
“Profit margins on liquor are really slim,” says Ramona, “but it’s a convenience and a draw that helps build traffic for other sales, like snacks.”
Life operating a convenience store chain isn’t without its challenges and government regulation is one of Ramona’s biggest frustrations. “Licenses, inspections, reports, surveys, it can be overwhelming and it takes up a lot of your time, but you don’t have an option about whether to do it or not.”
Profitability is also a challenge as profit margins are squeezed by competition, the commissions paid and margins allowed on government-regulated products, and willingness by customers today to shop around for a better price on certain offerings if they don’t see value in the convenience. “Profitability will always be a challenge,” says Ramona, “and that’s why convenience store owners have to be smarter and more savvy business people today than 20 years ago.”