Wawa in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, 7/30/06

Although Wawa stores have yet to hit New York City, today's New York Times Magazine includes the following article. Those who live in Wawa's mid-Atlantic coverage area already know.

Convenience Cult?

Published: July 30, 2006

The I Love Wawa group on MySpace.com has more than 5,000 members, making it the largest of several Wawa-related groups on the online-community site. Over on Livejournal.com, there’s a group called We Love Wawa, with about 950 members. This would be pretty ho-hum if Wawa were an indie band or video game. Instead, it’s a chain of convenience stores, with 550 locations in five states on the East Coast. Many of the postings to these groups involve praise for Wawa’s house-brand goods — coffee, hoagies, etc. But the most intriguing factor in Wawa loyalty may be something else: the service.

This, at least, is the contention of Neeli Bendapudi, an Ohio State University marketing professor who studied the chain as part of her continuing research on the impact of service quality on brands. Part of her goal, she says, was to avoid obviously service-oriented businesses like fancy hotels and department stores and to look at a sector that’s “really nonglamorous.” Convenience stores, where employee turnover is high and transactions are about as basic as it gets, seemed like the perfect setting for indifferent service. Yet in interviews with regular Wawa customers, Bendapudi found that employee friendliness was a recurring theme. And in an article for The Harvard Business Review, she and her husband, Venkat Bendapudi (who teaches management at Ohio State), argued that this was not a fluke: Wawa makes a concerted effort to “provide outstanding customer-employee interactions” by way of careful hiring and training practices.

The company’s C.E.O., Howard Stoeckel, says that while convenience stores seem like places for no-frills, almost-anonymous consumption, Wawa focuses on the repeat-customer side of the business, or, as he puts it, the “habit-forming” side. Store managers are expected to make each Wawa “part of the community” and impress regulars who will come in five times a week or more. Allison Fahmie, for instance, is a regular at a Wawa in Toms River, N.J., where many employees know her on sight; she’s the founder of that Myspace group. A co-founder of the LiveJournal group, Matt Breslin of Pitman, N.J., points out a thread on the site that involved people “claiming” their Wawas — declaring loyalty to the specific location that they patronize most frequently. In focus groups, Stoeckel says, repeat customers bring up the employees and say things like “Your people like each other, they have fun and work as a team, and when we come in to the store we feel part of that.” In an incident the company loves to mention, one couple even had their wedding at the Wawa where they met.

Wawa wages are comparable to those of other convenience stores, and it’s not as if the chain is hiring hotshot executives from G.E. to be clerks. It simply does a better job than most companies, the Bendapudis say, of “investing in” the people it hires, training them at its Wawa Corporate University and even reimbursing employees for college courses. This keeps turnover lower, they argue, and attracts hundreds of applications for every job opening.

What’s intriguing about a brand built partly on its service reputation is that the hottest consumer trend in America right now is arguably dissatisfaction with service. Recent service-rage incidents documented with video and audio recordings posted on personal blogs have ended up on network television news shows. Technology makes it easier for one ticked-off consumer to make an enormous fuss, but Bendapudi says she believes that service really is getting worse. Many jobs that involve dealing with the public are thankless, dead-end gigs. The less attractive such jobs are, the more service suffers. “It’s easy to have irate customers these days,” she says.

Even Stoeckel concedes that with 16,000 employees, Wawa’s interactions with customers are not all happy ones. But, he says, most Wawa regulars tend to see these as aberrations, not as the final indignity that deserves an online tirade. Bendapudi argues that if a convenience store can pull this off, plenty of companies would benefit from investing in service rather than in ever-bigger marketing campaigns. If fewer disgruntled employees leads to more satisfied customers, “we’ll all be happier people,” she says. And what advertising campaign has ever done that?


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