It’s been said that you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been. After a tumultuous year in the convenience store industry, it can be challenging to picture what lies ahead. But Paul Rankin, vice president of Country Fair, Inc., said that’s where the company turns back to what it knows best.
“The company mission statement is Country Fair Cares,” Rankin said. “We really try to support our team members, our customers and the community. Those are really the focus.”
That focus has helped the company excel. In 2019, Country Fair was named one of Forbes top mid-size companies to work for. Country Fair operates 72 c-stores in Northwestern Pennsylvania, Western New York and Eastern Ohio, and is listed as 16th-largest employer in Erie, Pa. The company also is a huge contributor to the community through its fundraisers and food bank donations. The relationships established with team members, customers and its community have helped Country Fair manage a year like no other.
As the world shut down last March, daily commutes and routines changed. Like the rest of the c-store industry, Rankin said Country Fair experienced a reduction in foot traffic, fuel sales and foodservice. As major employers and schools in the area kept employees and students home, Country Fair took a hit, especially during its busy breakfast traffic.
“We had a significant decline on customer count, which was difficult, because one of our major commodities—foodservice—was reduced significantly. I think for almost any convenience store in Pennsylvania, that’s a large share of their business,” Rankin said.
According to the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing (NACS), fuel sales decreased 26.1 percent from 2019 to 2020 when a quarter of the U.S. workforce began working from home. Prepared food sales decreased 7.4 percent across the industry last year as new pandemic regulations impacted self-serve stations.
But there was a bright spot. “We saw wine sales skyrocket, and beer sales did exceptionally well,” Rankin said, noting that PFMA was vital in getting alcohol sales to their stores.
We wanted to comply with all the safety, and that was a great deal that our team members carried out... And they did a great job.
To revive foot traffic, Country Fair moved quickly on adapting new safety protocols. “We’ve always believed in a lot of customer interaction,” he said. “The thing we had to do was just concentrate very early on putting plastic shields around our checkout areas, we were early on masking, and we went to almost full sanitation of everything.”
Although these changes provided new challenges for workers, Rankin is proud that the company experienced very little turnover. “We were real happy that we were able to retain our team fairly well. We had our lowest turnover last year of about 40 percent, which, for our business is a pretty low number,” he said. “I was just so pleased that so many of our people believed in us, stayed with us, and dealt with it. …We wanted to comply with all the safety, and that was a great deal that our team members carried out, but boy was that a tough one. And they did a great job.”
Country Fair is now bringing back many of the products and services they had discontinued in 2020, some with modifications. Thankfully, Country Fair’s customer loyalty is helping them to rebound. Its commitment to customers and to the community for the last 56 years is helping immensely, Rankin said.
“We try to do a lot of things for our customers. We’re very customer centric in any way that we can be, and it helped us a lot,” he said. “Obviously, versus 2020, our numbers are great, dealing with what the pandemic is. But 2019 becomes the key number. I think we’re finally hitting 2019 sales again.”
The c-store industry is competitive, and the pandemic has accelerated many conveniences driven by technology. Rankin said they plan to look at incorporating more technology and delivery options in the future. “The phone has become more and more key.”
For now, Country Fair is concentrating on what makes them different. “Part of what makes us distinct is Country Fair Cares. …Country Fair cares about three things—team members, customers and community—and that’s what makes us different from other people.”
Committed to the community
Liz Kemmery, director of communications