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Couche-Tard turns 40!

As Couche-Tard marks a milestone birthday, president and CEO Brian Hannasch discusses the Quebec-based company’s ascent to one of the biggest convenience store players on the planet 

1980-Couche-Tard-1980Alimentation Couche-Tard wouldn’t be the retail powerhouse it is today—growing from a single store in 1980 to more than 9,400 convenience stores in North America and 2,700 in Europe (most under the Circle K banner)—without innovation as a trajectory for growth.

Take Couche-Tard’s on-demand bean-to-cup coffee and grab-and-go “Fresh Food Fast” innovations. Both programs have helped to accelerate the convenience store’s credibility as a destination for quality sustenance. Since 2000, the Laval, Que.-based company has also kept the gas on store modernizations, and, more recently, an ear to the ground on learning opportunities with other companies, which has seen it expand into nascent categories, including cannabis. 

Screen Shot 2020-09-28 at 4.31.02 PMWhen it comes to new technology, the convenience sector isn’t exactly known as an early adopter. However, as Couche-Tard’s president and CEO Brian Hannasch shares in our exclusive interview, that is changing. For instance, Couche-Tard is making investments in AI, a digital-based loyalty and upsell program called LIFT and employee training that uses gamification.  Here, Hannasch, who has been president and CEO of Couche-Tard since 2014 and was COO from 2010 to 2014, talks innovation in various forms and Couche-Tard’s philosophy behind it. 

What does innovation in the convenience store industry look like to you?

With our vision to make our customers’ lives a little easier every day, innovation is one of our guiding stars. Historically, the convenience store industry has been less impacted by new technologies than other retail channels—our customers come to us for immediate consumption of products or services that require significant infrastructure, like fuel. However, with new digital possibilities and customer expectations, in addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, innovation is taking off in the convenience sector and at Couche-Tard. 

Can you give us a peek into the innovation pipeline?

We are working on exciting developments, including frictionless experiences in the stores, the use of AI for pricing and personalization, and other new possibilities, such as home delivery, which make traditional convenience even easier. 

Given the pandemic, how important has home delivery innovation become?

Innovation was already a big focus before COVID-19 hit us, but the pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate our innovation projects. We are just starting to learn more about home delivery and its role in our business. As of this date, we are piloting it in around 1,000 stores in all the regions in our network (although most are in the U.S.), and across multiple banners. We have also implemented [curbside pick-up service] Click & Collect in 1,000 stores. 

Couche-Tard has continued to expand LIFT. How has the loyalty program been a game-changer?

LIFT provides us with the ability to understand our customers’ purchase histories and to offer them personalized discounts and engagements based on their baskets. The LIFT digital platform is the anchor of our digital store network, delivering personalized value to our customers, increasing engagement and loyalty, and enabling our consumer-packaged goods partners and their media agencies to leverage the platform. 

How so?

Through LIFT, we are able to drive awareness of new brand launches with our business partners and develop brand relationships with customers, while delivering significant growth in a category at the time of purchase.  We also use the LIFT platform to promote our private label, increasing loyalty to these products. We are very pleased with the deployment of LIFT, which is now available in close to 7,600 corporate stores in North America.  We intend to continue deploying LIFT in the year ahead with the former Flash Foods sites in the U.S. and our North America Circle K franchise network.

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How else are you innovating in the area of customer experience?

We have been introducing a new store format based on the Holiday model in North America [Couche-Tard acquired the popular convenience chain in 2017}, and a new store concept in Europe. This is a never-ending process of continuous improvement. These new store concepts not only enhance the look and feel of our locations, they highlight the development of our food program as we look to innovate and elevate prepared fresh food items at our stores. Escalating fresh food service is among our core strategic priorities for growth.  

Let’s talk about using innovation when it comes to the development and training of employees.

Digitization has been key to our growing-together efforts. This year, we fully implemented our digital HR platform to all our North American employees and set the stage to start it in Europe. We also launched gamified training in all our European divisions, focusing on sales techniques and food, that achieved a 90% employee completion rate and led to an increase in basket sizes. This is now being successfully piloted in designated U.S. business units and is a great training tool that we didn’t even imagine 15 years ago. 

Couche-Tard staked its ground in cannabis retail with Canopy Growth, together opening a store in May 2019 under the banner Tweed. How is that going?

The operational results have been strong, and we are happy with this ongoing relationship to open more Tweed stores in Ontario. In July 2019, we also announced a strategic investment in Fire & Flower, the largest cannabis retail operator in Canada. The legal framework doesn’t allow Circle K or Couche-Tard stores to sell cannabis products in Canada. We feel that partnering and investing in experts in the cannabis sector, while contributing our vast expertise as a responsible retailer of age-restricted products, is the best model to learn more about this space and become a leader in the legal cannabis industry.

You often hear the advice “don’t innovate for innovation’s sake.” What philosophies does the company follow when it comes to innovation?

We don’t chase technology for the sake of it but rather to address actual pain-points in the customer journey. We explore new ideas and innovation in a very structured way to ensure an alignment with our strategic objectives. We also make sure innovation is a repeatable process creating value for our customers and a source of learning for the future. It is important for us to have dedicated innovation capacity, to place multiple bets, to be willing to fail and move on, and to nurture a culture of experimentation. We achieve some of this by working closely with start-ups and academia, and sometimes with companies that might be seen as disruptors in our industry. 

For photos and a timeline of the Couche-Tard’s innovation, read the September/October issue of Convenience Store News Canada.

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Product of the Year Canada now accepting entries

POY_2021__ENG-230x300Product of the Year is the world’s largest consumer-voted award for product innovation. Product of the Year currently operates in over 40 countries with the same goal: to guide consumers to the most innovative products in their market and reward the entrants for quality and innovation.

2021 entries are now open. Enter your product today at ProductoftheYear.ca

HOW IS PRODUCT OF THE YEAR CANADA DIFFERENT THAN OTHER AWARDS?

Focus on Innovation:

Product of the Year exists to help guide shoppers to new innovative products, as determined by consumers just like them. For winning products, this is not only an acknowledgement for innovation in the eyes of the industry, but a powerful sales tool proven to increase product trial, awareness and quality.

World’s Largest Product Innovation Award Program:

Product of the Year is a powerful concept that works in every market. Over the past 30 years, it has grown to over 40 countries and is still growing. The Product of the Year seal is used by winners across the globe. From packaging, to national advertising, to the trade community, Product of the Year is the seal of approval shoppers count on.

100% Consumer-Voted:

Products are voted on entirely by a nationally representative sample of Canadian consumers. With thousands of Canadians voting on products, Product of the Year Canada conducts a category-specific consumer product survey on innovation with our research partner, Kantar on behalf of EnsembleIQ.

For the past 30 years, marketers around the world have turned to Product of the Year to amplify their marketing and drive their sales.

For more information, please visit ProductoftheYear.ca or contact us via email at poycanada@ensembleiq.com


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Toronto entrepreneurs shine a new light on grocery disinfection

XGerminator-Summerhill-240x300The last two months have seen a lot of new safety protocols and practices quickly adopted across the grocery industry.

But high-end Toronto grocer Summerhill Market made news last week for allowing the first test of a machine that exposes groceries to ultraviolet light to kill germs and viruses. The pilot ran at Summerhill’s recently-opened location in the city’s Annex neighbourhood.

The XGerminator is the brainchild of two Toronto area entrepreneurs, Dara Gallinger and Alyssa Mincer. For now they just have the one prototype adapted from a machine developed by Waterloo company PrescientX.

The machine uses powerful germicidal ultraviolet C light that can provide 99.9% surface sanitization in just seconds, inactivating viruses and bacteria.

Like a lot of things in the COVID era, XGerminator happened fast. The idea itself is only six weeks old, when Mincer called Gallinger and raised the possibility of using UVC to clean groceries—an appealing proposition to shoppers who are taking the time to wipe down their groceries when they get home.

Gallinger liked the idea and as an entrepreneur herself, having founded Brodflour Bakery, her impulse was to act on it. “I was like yeah, let’s look into it,” she said.

They found PrescientX which specializes in healthcare infection prevention through, among other methods, the use of UVC. “They had a product that was built to disinfect N95 masks,” said Gallinger. “We put our heads together and thought we can probably take this concept and adapt it for the post-checkout retail environment. That’s how it all started, that’s how we had a prototype.”

After a few weeks they wanted to test XGerminator in an actual retail setting to gauge consumer reaction.

Summerhill co-owner Brad McMullen said he was happy to test something that could give customers an extra degree of comfort about shopping at his stores, even if it is just an early prototype.

“For me it was a quick ‘Let’s do it. Let’s try it and see what happens.’” he said. “We’re a fail fast company, I would rather just do something first and then learn from it.”

Gallinger and Mincer assumed the service would appeal most to customers wiping down their groceries with disinfectant to address any concerns about coronavirus contamination.

“Actually the people who were using it—and were as delighted as the other people—were ones who said I don’t actually wipe my groceries down but if this was made available to me I would absolutely choose it.”

However the experiment only lasted one day instead of the intended two weeks because it was too big for the space.

Gallinger said they already knew size would be a problem and have been working on smaller version that will emit less UVC light than what is needed in a hospital setting. “You don’t need as much of a UVC dose to inactivate most common bacteria, viruses and pathogens on hard surfaces,” said Gallinger.

McMullen too said he’d want a smaller model before he’d consider a long-term in-store commitment, but the larger one could also work for Summerhill’s delivery service with product being shipped from a central distribution hub.

“It would be a really significant value add for the online store because in that environment I have the space and the wherewithal to throw everything through a big tunnel,” he said. “Whereas in real-time testing with the cashiers in a cramped environment, I think we would have found it difficult just to have this big machine in our stores at this point.”

Originally published at Canadian Grocer. 


Brian Hannasch

A clear set of guiding principles help Alimentation Couche-Tard navigate COVID-19 crisis

In a statement outlining its business stance in the wake of COVID-19, Alimentation Couche-Tard says it is adhering to a clear set of guiding principles as its business navigates the COVID-19 outbreak.

Brian Hannasch

Brian Hannasch

“During these troubled times, Couche-Tard is committed to being part of the solution in the communities where we work and live. Our mission as a company has always been to make our customers’ lives a little easier every day, and we know the best way to get through these difficult days is to band together and support each other,” president and CEO Brian Hannasch said in a business update published on the company’s website. “In most areas where we operate, we are considered an essential and critical business. As such, we have worked hard to stay open and serve the needs of our customers and employees. While the effects of this crisis may be felt for some time, our business model is robust and resilient against economic cycles, which will allow us to ride out this storm.”

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From the start of the crisis, the company says its response has been defined by a clear set of guiding principles across all banners:

  • We are all in this together: our company, our employees, our customers, and our suppliers.
  • We must put the health and safety of our employees and customers as our first priority.
  • We must stay true to our mission of making our customers’ lives a little easier every day.
  • We must think and act with a long-term mindset.
  • We must ensure the safeguard of our assets and manage the business with a strong focus on maximizing cash flows.

Measures to protect staff and customers

Couche-Tard’s global Health, Safety & Environment team moved quickly, capitalizing on its experience in dealing with past emergencies, such as hurricanes, floods, and widespread fires, to put in place preventative measures. These included, the installation of Plexiglas dividers at checkouts, the addition of queue line separators and floor markings to ensure proper social distancing, and the supply of gloves at the fuel pumps in certain parts of our global network.

On the food safety front, the c-store giant introduced strict cleaning and sanitization procedures in stores and food preparation areas, adding single-item packaging to bakery and other self-serve food items, suspending the use of refillable mugs and cups, and ceasing in-store product sampling.

At its distribution centres, the company did temperature checks to screen employees for possible symptoms of the virus.

Couche-Tard also put additional measures in place to support and reward employees for their efforts, including:

  • An Emergency Appreciation Pay Premium of $2.50 per hour in North America for all hourly store and distribution center employees.
  • An Employee Assistance Program to all North American employees for the duration of the pandemic.
  • An Emergency Sick Care Plan for hourly employees in North America that included both a bank of sick pay, as well as a pay continuation benefit for anyone that is either diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed under mandatory quarantine.
  • Access to virtual healthcare for hourly employees in the United States.
  • A COVID-19 Assistance Fund to help employees most severely impacted by the pandemic. The Fund is seeded through substantial salary contributions by company founder Alain Bouchard, as well as Hannasch and members of the company’s executive leadership team. The company said some employees also donated to the fund.

Like most organizations, Couche-Tard put supports in place for office employees to work from home whenever possible, while also moving ahead with plans to adapt spaces to comply with social distancing requirements and limit participants for in-person meetings.

As offices open around the globe in accordance with local health authority recommendations, the is introducing detailed checklists of cleaning and sanitization procedures, social distancing of seating and common areas, and potential work shift options have been put into place across the network.

 Community support initiatives

  • Couche-Tard launched an offer globally of free dispensed beverages for all first responders, medical personnel and employees. To date, more than two million drinks have been given out.
  • In Europe, the Company put in place the Circle K Patrol to help local communities by delivering, free of charge, merchandise to people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and assembling care parcels for hospital workers and those under strict confinement.
  • On April 9, Couche-Tard launched the “Little Thank Yous” initiative in Canada, which empowers customers to directly thank someone with a free Polar Pop or coffee on behalf of Circle K and Couche-Tard. On May 8, the initiative was launched in Europe. To date, close to 19,000 “Little Thank Yous” have been gifted in Canada and more than 3,000 in Europe.
  • On April 10, the Company pledged to donate 25 million meals to Feeding America. On May 4, that target was reached and Couche-Tard extended the pledge to 40 million meals to be given to local food banks. This commitment will continue through June 30.

Store performance

In Europe, from a broad perspective, shopping behaviour started to change during the second week of March, as the World Health Organization officially declared on March 11 that the novel coronavirus had reached a state of pandemic, according to a the company. In North America, the impact on shopping trends was similar but lagged that of Europe by one week. Sites remained open throughout most of the countries and regions in which Couche-Tard operates, as fuel retailers and convenience stores were deemed essential.

couche-tard2-780x520On the fuel side, the company said: “volumes declined rapidly during the first few weeks that followed the implementation of restrictive measures across the different regions, but stabilized during April and began to see a gradual improvement in the latter part of the month. Fuel margins overall have benefitted from the rapid and steep declines in crude pricing.”

From a merchandise perspective, “sales benefitted from pantry stocking in the early days of the crisis. Starting in mid-March, merchandise sales decreased due to reduced customer traffic, but were mostly stable in their decline week-over-week since then. Overall, a higher average basket helped offset a portion of the lost customer visits.”

What are people buying?

The company said, “demand has been greater for alcohol, tobacco products, basic staples, canned and dry goods, and cleaning and sanitation products. This has helped mitigate the negative impact from lower demand in the prepared food category.”

Informed by their early learnings, Couche-Tard’s teams in Europe recommended adjustments to the in-store assortment, which allowed stores in North America to better anticipate the changes in shopping behaviour.

What’s next?

Couche-Tard said it “has taken many actions aimed at right-sizing such things as non-critical capital expenditures, marketing and promotional expenses, and various professional fees.” Additional measures include:

  • Adjustments to store hours and shifts based on the analysis of data from labour models.
  • The sharing of best practices across business units and frequent scenario modeling to help optimize decision-making and minimize business risks.
  • The required authorization by a member of the executive team for all hiring related to non-store vacancies and for all business travel.

Couche-Tard said its Global Procurement team was in frequent contact with key vendors to discuss possible issues in the supply chain, identifying areas of potential shortages and putting plans in place. For instance, leveraging its Private Brands team, the company worked to source key items and maintains “there have been few meaningful stock-outs across Couche-Tard’s network.”

Innovation continues

On March 18, Couche-Tard discussed with analysts and investors its target to implement the Food at Scale program in 1,500 locations by fall. This company said this “continues to be an important area of focus and capital expenditures for this initiative remain in the budget for fiscal 2021.” It continues to build out and installing structures and equipment inside stores and the planned rollout pace remains on track. A number of stores have suspended team training sessions related to Food at Scale, however, the plan is to “turn the switch back on and support the program with sampling and marketing when safety measures are relaxed.”

The company said is has many every effort to adapt to changing customer behaviours. For instance, it has been able to expand many delivery platforms and pull forward enabling technologies, such as:

  • The expansion of home delivery in North America to more than 620 stores.
  • Click & Collect and curbside delivery in both Europe and North America, with pre-ordering and payment through the Circle K app.
  • Frictionless payment technology in Norway to accept fuel payments using license plate recognition.

Looking ahead

Couche-Tard said it “is taking action to preserve its cash position and financial flexibility, including a pause to share repurchases.”

On April 19, the company halted plans to acquire Caltex Australia Ltd. to “focus its energy on managing operations and maintaining its financial strength through the crisis.”

As at February 2, 2020, Couche-Tard had $1.8 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet and a further $2.5 billion available on its revolving credit facility. The company’s cash balance has since improved, in line with the focus placed on maximizing cash flows through the crisis.

CFO Claude Tessier said: “Couche-Tard has always been managed with a disciplined mindset and a readiness to face possible rainy days ahead. We have come into this crisis in a strong position from both a financial standpoint, with a solid balance sheet and well spread debt maturities, and from an operational standpoint, with experience in temporary network shutdowns that permitted us to respond quickly to the changing landscape. We have implemented weekly COVID-19 financial reporting focused on daily cash position summaries, working capital, as well as details on retail sales, volumes and margin trends. We are taking all necessary steps to be ready to reinvest in our business and in the economy when the time comes to exit this crisis.”

In the company’s business update, Hannasch concluded: “I want to thank all our employees, customers, suppliers and partners, the leadership team, and our shareholders for their trust in the face of this pandemic. Our heart goes out to all who are suffering from the virus or taking care of loved ones. I have never been prouder to be CEO of this company, as during the most difficult days our employees have shown great kindness and care for each other, our customers, and our communities. Whether working tirelessly in our stores or remotely to support our operations, it is clear we are all in this together and will come out of this a stronger, better company.”


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Nielsen highlights future trends in product innovation

nielsen-profiles_0As we enter a new decade, brands, suppliers and retail industry experts are looking ahead to the innovation that will occur over the next 10 years.

“With constant evolution of channel, competitive and consumer environments, marketers are being forced to think differently in order to compete,” said Jenny Frazier, senior vice president of Nielsen BASES, the product innovation discipline within Nielsen. “Over the next decade, expect to see remarkable shifts in innovation strategies to accommodate a new age of conscious, connected and unconventional consumption.”

The next decade of product innovation will bring these trends, according to Nielsen:

Conventional product innovation is no longer about being first to market — Innovation now extends to identifying a brand’s larger purpose, for connecting with more discerning and fickle consumers. There is no single path to innovation success, and successful innovation can come in many forms: some could be disruptive game changers, some could be launched to fend off competitive pressure and some might be launched with the idea of tapping into an emerging consumer trend.

Brands will innovate in a heightened world of product disloyalty — Today’s consumers are alternatively bombarded and empowered by choice. They are also more disloyal than ever before, with one third of U.S. consumers claiming to be less loyal to products today than they were five years ago, and nearly half indicating they are actively looking for new products. This serves as a challenge for legacy brands and products, but it can be resolved by bold innovation.

Product packaging as we know it will be reimagined by 2030 — This could include refillable, dissolvable, plantable, food waste-based or other kinds of packaging. As consumers continue to prioritize sustainability, companies will remake the materials used to create their packaging, but also leverage packaging as a vehicle to reinforce authenticity. For some, product packaging will stand as a brand’s badge of commitment toward a more sustainable way of living.

Convenience with a conscience will emerge — The rise of the on-the-go lifestyle has prompted a surge in innovation within prepackaged, single-serve food offerings. More innovation is likely to occur in this sector, particularly within the fresh, refrigerated spaces, such as locally sourced hard boiled eggs for snacking. Additionally, this trend is rising parallel to the backlash against single-use plastic and a movement toward increased sustainability. Innovation will need to push convenience driven items like single serve offerings, from product formulations to packaging, to be more sustainable.

Generational preferences are breaking from tradition, marking an opportunity for innovators to rethink product norms — Interesting shifts are occurring at the opposite ends of the generational spectrum. Baby Boomers are changing the script by keeping youthful interests, staying active and taking on aging like no other generation has done before, while Generation Alpha is being raised with more mature, sophisticated tastes — at least according to foods, Nielsen found. Over the next decade products geared toward older generations will be more youthful and products aimed at the youngest generation will seem more mature.

Innovating for social commerce will rise — The era of creating photogenic products for Instagram and other social sites will continue, but the rise of social commerce will push the envelope for product innovators even further. Companies will have an increased opportunity to create limited edition, exclusive offerings specific for social commerce over the next decade. This will create new ways to engage with customers, enabling even more personalized products for targeted consumers and social communities.

Global textures and flavors will continue to inspire — Multicultural influences will guide the next decade of innovation as consumers continue to look for culinary experiences. Innovation in textures is prime for expansion, as seen with the mainstream popularity of food textures like mochi ice cream and boba drinks. Additionally, new global flavor innovations will continue to emerge, reaching new depths of spicy, savory and sour. Innovators will tap into more global tastes and trends for inspiration over the next decade, meeting the growing consumer need for experiential foods.

An increase in inclusive innovations will emerge — Product innovators will rise to the challenge to create products that are more inclusive, catering to consumers and communities across gender lines, abilities and ages. Additionally, brands will return to a more binary state, with less concentration on marketing unnecessary, genderized, household products and an increased focus on efficacy and authenticity.

Memorable mash-ups — Brand mash-ups will continue to draw attention, with some playing into the enduring appeal of nostalgia.

Products will test the boundaries of staple substitutions — Innovation in plant-based proteins has upended the protein space. As consumers continue to show interest in sustainable substitutes, companies will respond by continuing to innovate in this space, expanding to new categories across the store.

Originally published at Convenience Store News. 


Convenience retailers must tap innovations to meet consumers’ ‘sky-high’ expectations

Retail technology is becoming a bigger priority than ever before, as evidenced by the record number of attendees at the 2019 Conexxus Annual Conference in Nashville earlier this month. The 200-plus convenience store industry members at this year’s event have a full plate when it comes to innovation.

Kwik Chek Food Stores is just one of them. Kevin Smartt, CEO of the Texas-based chain and chairman of the Conexxus board of directors, told conference attendees that his company’s innovation pipeline is full and runs the gamut from loyalty programs, to mobile app food ordering, to the testing of self-checkout and mobile checkout, to deep data and consumer analytics, to blockchain.

Regardless of what is on the “to-do” list, though, it all comes down to putting systems in place that are critical to the c-store consumer, Smartt explained during the event’s opening session.

“We sell a lot of stuff, but we really need to understand our consumer,” he said. “Then, we need to understand what our consumer wants.”

THE FUTURE LANDSCAPE

The future landscape of retail and technology’s role in it is “simple” and boils down to a few key themes, according to Gray Taylor, executive director of Conexxus. These themes are:

  • Technology will continue to empower fickle consumers.
  • Every business is in the convenience business, and the definition of “frictionless” changes daily.
  • Every business will be in the data business.
  • Traditional scale is dead weight; new scale comes from the technology and logistics pool.
  • IR4 technology, or the fourth industrial revolution, will eradicate distance, location and immediacy as “moats.”

“The digital consumer has sky-high expectations when it comes to convenience,” Taylor said. “We have to ensure a convenient and frictionless shopping experience. Accessibility and relevance is no longer about physical location, but also about digital presence.”

EVOLUTION OF RETAIL TECHNOLOGY

The convenience store industry has seen its technology move beyond the basic forecourt to the store-to-the back office model. With innovation, the industry “is moving the store out into the customers’ hands” with initiatives like loyalty programs and mobile payments, Taylor explained.

The next generation, he believes, will include more cloud-based security, self-checkout, digital customer-related management and artificial intelligence (AI) checkout. This new wave is expected to come within the next five years, he said.

Looking three to seven years out, the industry will see advanced analytics, IoT (Internet of Things) food safety, vendor data exchange and home delivery. And if Taylor had to pick just one technology to keep an eye on, he said it would be autonomous delivery vehicles.

MOVING FORWARD

As more work needs to be done in the convenience store industry, the Conexxus chief advised retailers to keep some questions in mind:

  1. Are you prepared to defend your turf and expand into new turf?
  2. Are you driving efficiency in the supply chain?
  3. Is your technology stack encouraging innovation?
  4. Do you have a data-driven culture?
  5. Do you have your eyes fixed on the horizon?

“Retailers need to be leaders,” he said. “You cannot look to your vendors to tell you what your customers want.”

Originally published at Convenience Store News. 


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