By Charlotte Boulanger
France Bélanger knows a thing or two about working in a convenience store environment. She worked with her father at a c-store before joining him at Dépanneur Tout Près in Lévis, QC when he purchased the site with an associate in 1987.
Now, with the associate gone and her father retired, Bélanger has taken over and is calling the shots, with help from her capable and reliable manager, Maryse Gagné.
“When new competitors arrived in the area over the past several years, we had to diversify to attract more customers. We decided to encourage microbrewers and to cater to beer drinkers who would appreciate different beers. Our customers prefer to drink less but buy better beers,” explains Bélanger, adding that they often select a few high-quality bottles instead of buying cases of the same brands as their parents and grandparents.
The journey to becoming a real connoisseur of fine beers takes years of patience and a lot of tastings. Now, France Bélanger has gained a reputation that reaches owners of microbreweries all over Québec.
“In the beginning, I had to go to each of them, but now the owners of these small beer companies come to me. It’s actually a great satisfaction after so many years of patiently developing this market. Our reputation seems to be established now, since they want to deal with us.” says Bélanger.
“We try to have a beer tasting almost twice a month. In March, we have green beer tastings, for example. Essentially, we introduce new beers to our customers regularly and we announce arrivals on Facebook and in local papers.”
Bélanger says recruiting employees involves a few targeted questions about tastes in beer. “We look for serious people who are responsible and who understand the value of serving customers well. But we also find out if they like beer and if they have preferences. We sell some wine, of course, but we offer a very wide range of quality beers that can need introductions. We provide training for our adult employees so they can guide customers in their selection,” explains Bélanger.
Catering to the community
The secret to a successful business in an increasingly competitive market consists of many elements. Bélanger underlines the importance of being part of the community and responding to its needs.
“We are close to the hospital and therefore offer a selection of magazines and game books, and we have two schools around us that attract a young clientele at lunch time for snacks and candy,” she says.
“We also keep gift wrapping supplies to provide added value to customers who buy gifts here, such as wine or beer sets (bottle and glass in a box). During golf season, we offer beer accessories such as clothing or special glassware when we’re asked by tournament planners.”
Times have changed since the store removed the snack bar, the bakery, and butcher counter.
“We still provide coffee and a well-stocked grocery section, but we also made a choice of investing in a solid inventory of quality beers, which takes room. Maryse, the manager, takes great pride in keeping everything clean and inviting. She keeps a close eye on the inventory to make sure it stays fresh. The staff is knowledgeable. Our customers rely on us. We know them on a first-name basis and we welcome them and thank them sincerely,” says Bélanger.
“Our customers are faithful, and we work to keep them coming in. We have draws for television screens or, in the summer, barbecues. Customers can usually count on a contest box in the store sinc
e we participate in local promotions. It can be trips or other interesting prizes. We give back to customers as much as we can,” she adds.
Lions and beers
Bélanger also develops community partnerships to help spread the word about Dépanneur Tout Près and its first-rate beer selection. “For the past five years, we’ve been organizing a Beer Salon with the Lions Club. We have a glass customized for the event. People taste beers and the profits go to the Club. We also go to beer events in Montréal or other cities,” she explains.
A few years ago, the “dépanneur jaune” tried a foray into the cigar category, but space and display limitations held them back. That’s why Bélanger sticks to her true point of difference.
“Of course, we always have to adapt. Recently, other retailers got into micro beers, but we stay ahead by knowing our selection very well and we can offer good prices thanks to our volume.”
4 ways to set your store apart:
1. Establish a specialty, and promote it! Find the category or service that will set your site apart, and advertise your offer so you can start building customer loyalty.
2. Remember you can’t do it all. Go the extra mile to build up the categories your customers crave the most, and steer clear of bringing in additional SKUs that don’t cater to specific needs.
3. Find your promotional style. Test out different types of promotions to find the ones that work best. Local papers and Facebook are great places to start.
4. Develop the right partnerships. You can work with local events or festivals, but working with community clubs over the long term helps establish annual events linked to your store’s areas of focus.