Weigel’s convenience store chain looks beyond Knoxville Market
In 1994, Bill Weigel saw a cappuccino maker in an Atlanta convenience store.
He thought the machine that made a drink “nobody had ever heard of” would be his next ICEE machine, which Weigel’s convenience stores introduced to the Tennessee market in 1967.
“We love to do this,” said Weigel, president of the company. “We insist on doing it. The first time to market is very important.”
What is now a common coffee drink was one of a series of innovations Weigel’s made over its 90-year history, including the launch of self-service gas pumps in 1970.
Bill Weigel predicts the family business will continue this innovation in the future as the convenience store chain celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. In 2021 and beyond, innovation looks like investing in prepared foods, technology and expanding into a new market.
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Weigel plans to expand into the Chattanooga area and has already selected sites for some stores and hired district managers.
He also plans to open additional stores in the Tri-Cities region.
Bill Weigel said the company plans to open four stores per year over the next two years. That’s an increase in pace for the company, which recently opened an average of about three stores a year. By mid-June, it will have 70 stores in total.
Aside from a store here or there, Bill Weigel said the business would focus outside of the Knoxville market to expand.
Hiring in new markets is an added challenge in an already difficult recruiting environment, said Director of Recruitment Kurt Weigel. The company has 1,020 employees. It takes around 30-35 employees to open a new store, and the company has faced hiring issues as people decide whether or not to return to retail jobs as COVID-19 vaccinations increase.
Bill Weigel said he hoped to expand the brand to 100 stores, a threshold he said could allow the brand to compete with “big, big companies.”
Weigel’s was ranked # 95 on Convenience Stores News’ Top 100 Convenience Stores Chains of 2020 list.
There are more than 152,000 convenience stores in the United States, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, altogether an industry of $ 650 billion.
Technology and bakery products
Like almost all industries, convenience stores have seen customer habits and preferences change during the pandemic.
Sixty-five percent of shoppers surveyed in a 2021 study by Convenience Store News said they visit a convenience store at least once a week, up from about 75% in 2020. Only 14% of shoppers surveyed said they frequented more. often convenience stores.
Customers, according to Weigel executives, have become more interested in prepared foods and hands-off shopping experiences.
President Doug Yawberry said the company is investing in more customer-centric technology that enables mobile ordering, pickup and curbside delivery. The company will replace its point of sale system later this year.
The convenience store industry hadn’t invested much in technology until about five years ago, he said.
“Part of the bigger problem is updating the current technology that we have in stock, whether it’s point-of-sale systems, loyalty programs, these are things that are important to the business. future, ”Yawberry said. “We are moving very quickly and changing some of these big platforms so that we can adapt now and in the future.”
Sales of food products in the industry grew 5.2% in 2020 and have increased over the past five years, according to Convenience Store News. Sales of frozen beverages in distribution grew the most, with a 12.5% increase in sales per store.
Consumers are using delivery to get food from anywhere, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. There was also an in-store demand for more prepared foods, the Weigel team said. This means expanding the company’s pizza and chicken programs that have been launched in recent years.
According to a report by Convenience Store News, customers surveyed across the industry most often purchased prepared pizza, followed by hot dogs and sandwiches.
Some convenience stores use ghost kitchens for their prepared foods, an offsite third party partner. Weigel’s, which prepares its food in stores, plans to build a commissary where take-out meals will be prepared. The company also plans to build a larger bakery, Bill Weigel said.
The company plans to construct an 8,000 to 10,000 square foot building that would house all of the food preparation. Much of this is currently done in stores.
“Over the years, we have built our reputation around the dairy in many cases, which was a reputation for providing a quality product to our customers,” Yawberry said. “When we talk about commissary, when we talk about bakery, the same principles apply. And we are monitoring these things moving forward, as well as our foodservice program. “
Innovation in the industry will continue. Visitors to this year’s Indianapolis 500 could have a self-contained convenience store shopping experience, according to Convenience Store News. Computer technology tracked what ticket holders picked up and emailed a receipt moments after leaving the store.
And in May, the Sheetz chain of 622 stores became the first convenience store chain to accept bitcoin at the pump and in stores.
From market gardening to electric vehicles
The Weigel family started out as a market gardener, but turned to the dairy business, one of the many changes the family made to keep the business going. When the housewives went to work, she left home delivery behind and opened drive-thru milk shops.
The drive-through stores became walk-in stores, and then the family added groceries and eventually gasoline. Bill Weigel said he estimates gasoline has a 30-year lifespan and the company will need to prepare for the advent of electric cars and whatever comes next.
“But we have to change, and I’ve learned that it’s better to be prepared for the future, not for what happened,” said Bill Weigel. “I learned to be patient, I didn’t make a profit for the first seven years of my life, so I know it’s not that easy. You have to be persistent, stay the course … little the last guy to give up wins. “
The company will continue to sell its milk and baked goods exclusively through Weigel’s stores.
“Our family is committed to keeping the business running,” said Bill Weigel. “I’m proud of it.”