Phil-ling a Need
Fast Phil’s convenience stores have developed a loyal following in North Carolina.
By Chris Olvera
Food and Drink Magazine / Summer of 2010
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Fast Phil’s convenience stores in North Carolina were just your average convenience stores until Walter Herring came on the scene 10 years ago. Herring’s previous experience as a General Manager for an independent supermarket and three convenience stores, as well as an account manager for a major grocery wholesale distributor working with supermarkets and convenience stores, helped him learn the business from the other side. Having lost their General Manager, the owners of Fast Phil’s, who was one of his accounts, had a meeting with him and asked him how the company could be improved. Based on his experience, Herring gave the owners a three-point plan. Soon after leaving the meeting the owners called and offered him the opportunity to become General Manager and put his experience to work for them and implement his three-point plan.
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“I gave them what I felt were the three keys to making Fast Phil’s more successful. They were marketing, personnel and maintenance,” he explains. After giving them the details of each key, “They stepped back and turned me loose and I hit the floor running.” I’m a very analytical person. I believe in the old saying “plan your work and work your plan.”
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With the help of a great team of dedicated supervisors, managers and their staff we have turned Fast Phil’ s into a destination stop for our regular customers. The stores sell everything you’d expect from a convenience store, including a limited grocery section. “We started our marketing plan by selling milk, bread and eggs at prices as low as or lower than supermarket prices. We sought out unique sizes of products that average convenience stores don’t offer. For example, we found a 48-ounce bottle of Sunny D, a product we felt would sell well if valued at $.99. This was priced at supermarket prices. We have added cereal at very competitive pricing and continue to search for value priced items that will entice the customer to make us their mini market value priced destination stop. Our slogan is, “Whoever said you can’t have low prices and convenience never shopped at Fast Phil’s.”
Fast Phil’s now offers daily specials and has created its own “Dollar Value Section.” Our theme last year was “Ask our associates what $1 or less will buy you at Fast Phil’s. We have flyer’s at each checkout for our associates to give to customers showing what $1 will get you in each category in the store as well as our monthly specials. We are carrying products such as trash bags, paper towels, dish detergent and toilet paper and put them in our dollar section. We tell our customers, “Why make an extra trip to Dollar General when you can get what you need here?” I am very involved with the merchandising of the stores.
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According to Herring, the everyday specials have helped make Fast Phil’s a destination stop. “Rather than have a sale that lasts a week or two, we just offer a variety of products for a good price every day,” he explains. “We also have ‘every day two-for’ deals on many items such as Moonpies, Gatorade, 20 oz. soft drinks, sweet and salty treats, candy, energy drinks, water, and much more, so the customer knows no matter which Fast Phil’s they pass by they can always get every day great deals. We have some kind of special candy shipper every month as well as certain candy sizes for 25 cents. In these tough economic times if a mom has three kids, I don’t want her go broke buying candy.”
Up with People
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The second key to our being successful is the personnel, Herring says. “Our employees know their customers,” he explains. “They ask them about their family and kids and when they see them enter the store, they’re already getting their merchandise together at the counter. Our Associates know while we may not have the largest or fanciest stores around we can have the cleanest, best stocked, and give the best customer service in the business. He states “When out in the field, I have seen the same customers in several different stores in one day.”
Herring knows he has the right people because he is very involved with the hiring process. He believes most people want to do what you expect of them so it is very important to make sure up front that they know what those expectations are. Prospective employees must submit a detailed application, then the store managers interview them, and finally Herring personally reviews them. As a rule only about one out of ten make it to the interview which he conducts. He states, “I want to have the people at the bottom thinking and performing like we do at the top.” It’s important for people to understand how you think and operate so they can take ownership of what you are trying to accomplish. After an extensive process that includes a written exam, a drug test, two training videos, the employee then spends the first five days on the job with the store manager. Herring likes all new hires to learn the layout of the store before he or she is begins cash register duties. For this reason the area supervisor spends the first two to three hours with new hires taking them through this process. “We have a checklist of everything, and we want to make sure they are trained and understand how to perform their job before we allow them to go solo their first shift.”
Each store is equipped with an employee handbook, called their “bible”, that includes all the information to operate the store, including how to handle the many situations that arise while on duty, such as customer complaints, and check card applications for Fast Phil’s own check cashing card. It also contains all the phone contact information for vendors as well as store personnel, the manager, area supervisor and even Herring. He is very adamant that no store personnel should never feel helpless while on duty and should always have access to everyone, including the General Manager, to help them with any situation necessary. “We need to keep the lines of communication open,” Herring says. “If they have a problem, they go up the line of contacts until they get someone to help them, including me. I’ve received calls late at night and on the weekend. While at times
it is trying, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Because Fast Phil’s believes in their employees and emphasizes the need to keep up the Fast Phil’s image, we take care of the employees. “Our people are what makes this company run,” We have developed several good bonus programs that include every part time and full time employee. They are the ones on the front lines every day making us successful and they should share in that success.”
The last key to our success is to have a preventive maintenance program. It’s very expensive to repair and maintain the many pieces of equipment, along with the everyday general maintenance. With the help of a dedicated maintenance staff we try to be proactive instead of reactive to hold down costs on store maintenance.
This year Fast Phil’s is celebrating 30 years of service to our customers. We want to thank all our store associates, office staff, vendors and wonderful loyal customers who have helped make us successful. We want to especially thank Food and Beverage Magazine for taking the time and effort to recognize that even the small convenience store chains can be successful in this ever-changing, fast paced, competitive business.