Wawa, thorntons bring competition to convenience store market gas 10 8 schlauchadapter

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When Wawa expands into the Tampa Bay area, shoppers will flock to the convenience stores for built-to-order hoagies, gourmet coffee and freshly made salads. • Circle K, 7-Eleven and other convenience stores most certainly will feel the squeeze. But so will McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Panera Bread and drug stores — retailers that carry similar products for people in a hurry. • "We compete with everyone,” said Howard Stoeckel, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania-based Wawa. • Wawa has aggressive plans for the area — opening five stores in the next few months and up to 100 stores in the Tampa Bay/Orlando market within five years. So does Thorntons, a smaller convenience store chain that’s opening stores in Clearwater and Tampa next month and up to 20 more in the next three years.

Combined, the popular northern chains will make the local convenience store market even more competitive, said Steven Montgomery, president of b2b Solutions, a convenience store consulting company. To survive, stores will have to upgrade their sites, improve customer service and lower fuel prices.

Montgomery expects older, less profitable stores could go out of business because they lack the newness, ample parking and selection of their competitors. They also can’t compete on the price of gas, which already has a slim profit margin of pennies per gallon.

Wawa and Thorntons offer an upscale convenience store experience with freshly prepared foods, sandwiches, gourmet coffee and fountain drinks, more in line with fast-casual restaurants than truck stops. They sell gasoline, too, but primarily as a way to drive shoppers into the large, attractive stores.

"This is the probably the most significant, strategic, geographic initiative we’ve ever moved on in our 48 years,” Stoeckel said. "We want to be a part of the Florida community and create a new Wawaland every bit as robust as what exists in the mid-Atlantic.”

Wawa opened its first six stores in Florida a few months ago in the Orlando area amid big fanfare. Gov. Rick Scott attended a grand opening and has been a major driving force in helping the company locate to Florida, Stoeckel said. Customers drove from as far away as Tampa to buy the stores’ signature hoagies.

Wawa plans to focus its growth on Florida over the next two decades, potentially with 300 to 400 additional stores. Each averages 5,500 square feet, significantly more than an average convenience store, costs $5 million to $6 million to construct and employs about 50 people.

Thorntons is similarly known for its fresh food but also for its flavored fountain drinks, ice nuggets and selection of beer, stored in a "beer cave.” Its first store in Florida is scheduled to open Dec. 4 along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater.

Without commenting directly on Wawa and Thorntons, 7-Eleven differentiates itself from others with its private brand labels, value pricing and product selection, said Margaret Chabris, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based chain. Much like people call facial tissue Kleenex, 7-Eleven has become synonymous with convenience stores.