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Calgary Co-op: putting customers first

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CalgaryCOOP_YCMNovDec15_Watt_0036Calgary Co-op sites aren’t exactly like others in the c-gas and wash market, and Woody Stelnicki, managing director, petroleum, takes pride in these points of difference. As a major retail co-operative, Calgary Co-op has more than 440,000 member-owners, and operates 77 sites in Calgary and the surrounding area, including 28 gas bar locations.

With a membership structure that fosters loyalty, full-service pumps, and a wide variety of offerings at each site centre, Calgary Co-op has set itself apart in the c-gas landscape, and has plans to further distinguish itself as it incorporates feedback from both managers and members alike.

We recently caught up with Stelnicki to find out how Calgary Co-op has become a fuelling fixture in Alberta, and how it’s expanding and evolving to meet the needs of its member-owners and customers.

YCM: Calgary Co-op is one of the largest retail co-operatives in North America. What are the advantages of working within this retail model?

Woody Stelnicki: As a co-operative, we share our profits with our members at the end of the year, and for us, that’s certainly a competitive advantage. Our member-owners are able to experience that profitability personally when they get their annual member refund in the form of cash and equity in our organization. Last year, in terms of petroleum, we paid back 6 cents/litre to each member, based on his or her purchases. It’s certainly a positive, and a driver to bring them back.

Another advantage of being a co-operative is that we’re local. Members know who they’re dealing with, and they know our profits stay local. We also support the community and local charities through the Co-op Community Foundation.

YCM: There are many different components to the Calgary Co-op retail offer. How important is the c-gas and wash channel to Calgary Co-op’s overall success?

WS: Certainly the petroleum department is a major contributor to the overall success of the organization, and we plan to be a major part of that going forward, as well. But it’s also not all about petroleum, either. The true success of the organization is really in all the different commodities that come together to provide goods and services for our member-owners. We have fuel, convenience stores, car washes, food stores, liquor stores, pharmacies, and travel and home health care departments. There’s quite a broad spectrum of areas we touch on, and it allows our brand to meet all of the needs of our members and customers.

The other advantage of having those different areas is we can leverage one area to benefit another or to drive business to another area. At the pumps at Calgary Co-op, we provide our members with a 3 cent/litre Revved Up Rewards grocery coupon, and that drives our customers from the pumps into our food stores.

YCM: What trends do you see occurring in the c-gas and wash channel?

WS: In the convenience store, we’re looking at healthier food and beverages and fresh offerings, and looking at the market potential in those areas, product selection, and the logistics of getting those products to all of our locations.

Self-service has been a trend in the industry for a long time, but we haven’t followed that trend entirely. We still offer full-service at our pumps, and we use that as a major differentiator in the marketplace.

We’re going through changes right now, and payment technologies is one of them. We’re just coming through the EMV conversion, and tap-and-go phone payments are on the go right now. Really the question is: what’s next? We’re going to have to stay on top of that, because the customer is going to want that type of convenience.

CalgaryCOOP_YCMNovDec15_Watt_0054We’ve rolled out wireless handheld terminals that we can take right to the window of the vehicle to accept payment from the customer, and it’s something we had to look at pretty hard to really complement our full-service offering. We have to evaluate all trends – just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to jump on board with it. We have to make sure it’s right for our business.

YCM: What are Calgary Co-op’s plans for growth in the c-gas market?

WS: We’re still expanding, and we have plans to do so for some time to come. We have another new location opening later this year, we have a commercial cardlock opening next year, and we have a major upgrade to one of our existing sites happening, as well.

We’ve been through ups and downs in the petroleum industry before, and we will again in the future. But we’re aggressively looking for convenience store locations, fuel locations, whether retail or commercial, and car wash opportunities.

YCM: How does Calgary Co-op work to build relationships with its managers?

WS: All of our gas bar managers are employees; we don’t have commissioned operators. The biggest way we build and maintain those relationships is through communication. We have a lot of two-way communication, whether that’s in person, over the phone, or by email.

Our managers are such an important part of the entire picture. They’re the team leaders at each of the gas bar locations, and certainly a big part of why we’re so successful. We provide them with the support and direction they require, but they are there every day and they ensure we’re meeting the needs of our member-owners at all of our locations.

I really rely on those individuals to help shape the way we do things. They’re the people who are implementing our programs day in and day out, so they know what’s working, and what’s not working. They come back with feedback about how to make processes better. This two-way communication really helps us to continually improve.

YCM: What does the c-gas channel need to focus on getting right in order to continue evolving and remain competitive in the retail landscape?

WS: We need to stay convenient, because that’s what we are. That should allow us to stay relevant. Customers’ demands are always changing, and we need to change with them. More importantly, we need to find out and provide what our customers want. The days of just putting in programs and expecting them to work are gone; there are just too many choices out there for that customer. We need to continue to evolve the look and feel of our locations, provide service and value in our offerings, and get and stay connected with our customers.