Wawa convenience stores don’t have customers, they have fans. Just looking at social media, it’s clear that the Mid-Atlantic chain has bred unusual brand loyalty: The company has more than 1 million “likes” on Facebook, compared to nationwide rival 7-11, which has about a tenth as many. If you ask Jim Shortall for the reason Wawa convenience stores have been popular with customers for over 100 years, he’ll tell you it’s the same reason he’s been working there for 40 years. It’s a corporate culture that values its associates who, in turn, value their customers.
Shortall, director of store operations, says he hopes to share what he has learned from Wawa at the upcoming Independent Business Summit: “Branding to Develop Customer Loyalty.” The event will feature presentations from Shortall and NJM Insurance Group’s public affairs director John Hardiman, plus an interactive workshop led by branding consultant Lisa Manyoky on Tuesday, June 7, from 7:30 to 11 a.m. at the College of New Jersey, Education building. Cost: $35 for members; $45 for non-members. Register at web.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
“What has kept me with the company all these years,” says Shortall, is the company’s core purpose: fulfilling lives every day. Wawa’s first value is to value people, starting with employees and extending to customers and the community. The positive culture you create for the employees inspires loyalty among customers, he says.
When you join Wawa, the first thing you learn about the company is its values. “At Wawa, we are all owners,” says Shortall. After 1,000 hours of work, employees are given company stock. Today, about 43 percent of the company is employee owned. In terms of career opportunities, the company promotes from within, and offers training through its Wawa University with locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
As a Wawa employee — from the person behind the counter to the CEO — your work isn’t just about filling orders, it’s about building relationships, says Shortall. Sure, customers visit the store for the fresh, made-to-order hoagies and freshly brewed Wawa coffee, but they come in for more than that. “We all believe we have a role in making the world a better place, he says. “That purpose keeps everyone focused on the big picture.”
Although the average store serves thousands of customers a week, associates take pride in getting to know the regulars by name, he says, adding that the staff thinks of Wawa as the “Cheers” of convenience stores.
One of Shortall’s favorite initiatives for promoting positive relationships is the Five-star Celebration. About 50 times a year, Wawa celebrates stores that have been given high ratings from customers. The celebration day takes place in the store where customers are entertained by a live DJ and offered a free cup of coffee. In addition, customers are invited to tell stories about their favorite Wawa memory or their favorite associate. Those who participate qualify for gifts including free coffee for a month, a Wawa mug, and a T-shirt.
Some of Shortall’s favorite stories are about customers who have been married in the store, and another is about a group of regulars who meet at a New Jersey Wawa on Thanksgiving day to enjoy the store’s turkey gobbler sandwiches together. Based on all the stories he has heard, Shortall says with a smile that Wawa’s customer loyalty almost approaches a cult following.
Shortall, who grew up in Sayreville and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, says he owes much of his business success to his father who had been a controller at Unisys and the CFO of Temple Health Care in Northeast Philadelphia. His mother, the family homemaker, also worked as an aide at Montessori schools.
Shortall studied at St. Joseph’s University earning a graduate degree in food marketing. While pursuing his education, he took a part-time job at Wawa and has been working there ever since. He started as a store associate, took advantage of the company’s training opportunities, and moved up to a position in marketing and later in safety.
Today, as a director of store operations, he oversees 90 stores in North Jersey. Shortall says when he started with the company, there were 185 stores. Today there are over 645 stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and New Jersey. As part of his role in operations, Shortall works with a real estate group to find property and approve new store openings. He expects the recently approved Ewing Township store to open within a year.
When it comes to Wawa’s commitment to the community, Shortall can’t say enough. A few of its contributions include raising funds to build the Special Olympics gym in Lawrenceville; participating in fund raising walks for Ewing’s Kidsbridge Tolerance Center; providing assistance to New Jersey residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; and sending free coffee to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two years ago, the company created the Wawa Foundation to support Wawa’s charitable giving and philanthropic activities.
Following the NJM and Wawa presentations, Lisa Manyoky will lead an interactive workshop designed to help attendees integrate Shortall’s and Hardiman’s lessons into their own businesses. In the process, Manyoky will explore the presenters’ best practices and make them relevant to independent business owners.
Manyoky, a personal branding and marketing expert, is unique in her field. She is a presence specialist, focusing on people, communication dynamics, motivation, and expression, helping professionals and organizations understand who they are and what they stand for.
“Presence is a highly sensory experience,” she says. “It is a blend of visibles and invisibles—things you can see, such as attire or style, and things you cannot, such as confidence or sincerity.
“Everyone and every business has presence. But some have an indefinable something special that commands attention, holds attention and remains worthy of attention,” Manyoky says. “Wawa and NJM have mastered presence, and that has turned their employees into advocates and their customers into their champions.”