For decades, brothers James and Nelson Starr sat at the roadside in the small hamlet of Scanterbury, MB to offer greetings to motorists who passed through the Brokenhead First Nation on their way to Manitoba’s cottage country. The hand waving was sincere and not an attempt to get people to stop for goods or services. Their’s was a simple human act to just say hello to strangers.
With Nelson now deceased and James in a nursing home, all that remains of their peaceful gesture is a massive wooden chair erected off the highway as a tribute. The band also erected a new convenience store and gas bar close to the site where the pair would greet passers by. Fitting then is the name of the new store and gas bar called Wavers of Brokenhead in memory of the good-natured brothers. Since opening, the store, located 70 kilometres north of Winnipeg on Provincial Highway 59, has become a focal point for the community and a regular stop for motorists.
Wavers opened in November of 2008 to much fanfare. The new store and gas bar represented a major uptick in services for the small community of 1,700 persons. The operation features a 2,700 square foot modern example of c-gas merchandising with four pumps and eight dispensers at the forecourt and a full range of confectionery, beverages, tobacco and lottery products inside.
“Outside of tobacco, confectionary is our number one in-store category ahead of beverages ($221,000) and lottery,” says manager Allen Hocaluk reporting the small store rang in more than $227,500 in sales in candy, gum and chocolate bars last year. Lottery is also strong at $150,000 just in scratch tickets. “We had a Lotto 649 MaxMillions winner recently and this has helped grow this part of the business. Its important to let customers know a winning ticket was sold on site. It makes everyone feel lucky and sales tend to increase,” he says.
Indeed, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries suggests sales can increase quite a bit by just letting people know about a win.
“We encourage our lottery ticket retailers to publicize large wins,” says Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries spokesperson Andrea Kowal. “We have a comprehensive winner awareness program for retailers that includes hosting winner receptions at their location, reader boards highlighting large wins, as well as winner signage and promotional materials. Our sales data shows that by publicizing a large win in this way, ticket sales at that location can increase 5% to 15% in the weeks following the win, depending on the size of the jackpot, retail location and time of year.”
Certainly, Brokenhead First Nation is a place people come to when they feel that good luck spirit. Across the highway from the store stands South Beach Casino and hotel, another fairly recent addition to the community. According to Hocaluk, the hotel has been good for their foodservice business. Wavers offers Chicken Delight, a local Manitoba brand that has been in the market since the ‘60s. Last year the store served $350,000 of drumsticks, wings and breasts to a takeout and delivery market that includes the nearby hotel. “We’ve done well with Chicken Delight. People know and love the brand and it was pretty easy to get the program underway. Now we are known in the area as a great place for quick meals and this impacts our other categories with people buying additional items when they stop in for buckets and snack pacs. We can even add items to a delivery order to increase the convenience and this brings sales up as well,” he says.
Tobacco sales are strong at the store. In fact, sales hit more than $2 million last year. The manager tells that they sell regular brands such as DuMaurier and Players rather than First Nation’s products. However, members of the band and others with treaty cards are entitled to buy tobacco at tax exempt pricing, a fact that has ‘card’ holding First Nation people pulling in for the lower prices that can be $5.00 less per pack than off-reserve stores.
The same is true for petroleum products. Status Indians who have registered with Finance Canada may use their ‘gas card’ to buy gasoline or diesel at tax reduced pricing. This has made Wavers a popular location for fuel where those with ‘gas cards’ pay 0.11 cents less per litre than the general population. The site saw 4.2 million litres of regular, 350,000 litres of premium and 432,000 litres of diesel sold in 2015. “We have three people on the pumps at peak times (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays) and they are very busy,” says Allen.
Hocaluk comments that with the business doing well, a major challenge is to make sure they have the right merchandise and enough stock to satisfy needs. For example, at his location they stock and sell a lot of phone cards. In fact, the store sold some $50,000 worth of call and text time last year. “We also sell lots of fireworks and people come in to buy birthday gifts so we have to have a selection of toys. (Wavers sold $7,000 in fun small wares in 2015.) The store also sells a good amount of native crafts ($16,000) that we obtain from local artisans and others,” he says, noting that they have become much more than a place for just a quick coffee or a pack of cigarettes.
He reports that the business continues to build trade. “As more people utilize cottage country we have become a regular stop for them on their way back and forth. We are one of the few operators to have pumps on this highway that sees a lot of traffic,” he says noting that they have the added benefit of traffic control lights and speed reduction through the reserve that slows cars and makes it easier for customers to turn in for a tank of gas or snack. “Wavers is also the major retailer on the reserve and tax exemptions makes us a logical choice for residents to shop here. There is also a new winter road that means we can offer supply to other communities that have limited access.
“We try to carry on the good feelings that the Nelson and James generated when they sat at the roadside waving at people passing thru. Certainly one of our goals is to be good ambassadors for our community and our staff (three full time and 11 part time) have been doing a good job here.”