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New layout and local partners help Noco build its brand

Noco is giving its convenience stores a new look. Wi-Fi service and seating areas to entice customers to stay a while, along with an expanded array of quick-serve dining offerings, from Charlie the Butcher to Mighty Taco and Tim Hortons, are giving about a half dozen of the Town of Tonawanda company’s 35 convenience stores a far greater line of offerings beyond the traditional staples of milk, beer and cigarettes.

Paul Wydro, who oversees the company’s Noco Express Shops business, talked about the changes at one of the company’s revamped stores at Genesee Street and Holtz Road in Cheektowaga.

Q: Was there anything in particular you were looking to accomplish with the redesign?

A: We wanted to get the flow a little better. If you look at some of our other designs, they kept the restaurant customer away from the convenience store customer. The openness of this location helped get the cross shopping going and has actually increased the sales because of it.

Q: What’s different about the new store format?

A: We changed the checkout configuration to make it more of a semi-circle, as opposed to a Y, where you walk right into the checkout. We opened up the store, so instead of having a quick-serve restaurant on one side of the store and a convenience store on the other, we’ve combined them. So the flow from the hot food, quick-serve restaurant to the soda cooler is together, not separate.

Because of that, I think we’re getting more crossover shopping. People are not coming in to use one part of the store. They’re using them both.

Q: Will you use this format on other stores?

A: You’re going to see more and more of this design. We are remodeling some of our older facilities using this front-end, half-circle and the two-door setup. And with the newer stores we’re opening up, we’re going to try to keep it as open as we possibly can. The new one we’re opening next January on Walden Avenue and Pavement Road in Lancaster will have more of an open setup also.

Q: Has the new design changed the mix of sales you end up with?

A: The quick-serve restaurant really helps the gross profitability of the store. What supplements that is the higher-grossing, high consumable items we carry throughout the store. It’s a combination of both that’s really going to help us grow, not one or the other. And I think the old design, with that Y-shape, eliminated the opportunity to sell more product.

Q: Many supermarkets and other stores now have coffee kiosks, which traditionally was a big draw for convenience stores. How has that changed what you have to do?

A: People are so pressed for time, the more you can give them, the better. That’s where the quick-serve restaurant comes in. In any convenience store a couple years ago, you could pick up a snack, a soda, 12-pack of beer and a pack of gum and, of course, your cigarettes. But if you can supplement their time, by offering them a good-quality meal quickly, it kind of closes the deal.

The more we experiment with it, the more we’re seeing that people are looking at that, not only for coffee in the morning with the Tim Hortons that we have for breakfast, but the afternoon lunch and dinner time, as well. So it’s actually a growing concept.

Q: Charlie the Butcher is part of this store and a few others. What’s your relationship?

A: Charlie’s been a good partner of ours for a couple of years now. We started in East Aurora and Orchard Park and then expanded it to Main and Young in Amherst and then here on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga. We’ve got some plans to use him in the future depending on the demographic area. It’s a specialty, probably not for every one of our locations.

Q: The competition has changed with Wilson Farms being taken over by 7-Eleven. How has that changed the landscape?

A: We are family-owned and locally operated. Wilson Farms was a great company that did a great job of understanding the Western New York customer and supplying their needs at the convenience level. I think we’re ready to pick up that banner.

The hometown Charlie the Butchers, the Tim Hortons, which aren’t from Buffalo but are very well-received in Buffalo, the Just Pizzas that we just put in and the Mighty Tacos that we have in some stores. We’re trying to stay with the local component to reflect our commitment to the community in Western New York.

Q: What makes a good location for a convenience store?

A: Traffic, number one. If people pass by constantly, they’re more apt to stop in. And households, actually, depending on what you’re able to offer. Traffic helps with the fuel, households help with the inside sales.

Q: Do you also look at what competition is around?

A: You look for a void. If you look at the Walden and Pavement location, there’s really not a lot of households there. But there is a lot of traffic and it’s something that we think we can build off because it looks like an expanding area. A key to that also is a convenience store also is becoming more of an oasis in certain areas.

Q: Where are you looking to expand?

A: You really want to look at where you can compete for new dollars. We’re looking at expanding beyond Western New York and Buffalo to the Rochester market.

Q: Why are you looking to Rochester?

A: There are areas that are under-served in that area, or at least in the area between Buffalo and Rochester. We opened two stores in the Rochester area this past year and we have plans to open a few more in the years to come.

Q: In a new market like Rochester, do you need a certain number of stores to get the name recognition and market presence to really operate effectively?

A: What we’re hopefully able to do is keep spreading the name of Noco. We have a natural gas and electric division that has expanded into the Rochester area. Our stores are really our billboards. We can help promote that portion of our business through our stores.

Q: How big of a component is the gas portion of a convenience store?

A: It’s much more convenient, if you’re stopping for fuel, to be able to pick up everything else. On the economic aspect of it, it’s a very good contributor to the sales piece of it and the profitability piece of it, too.