7-Eleven courts kids

In plaza-happy suburbia, teens habitually hang out in 7-Eleven parking lots....

In plaza-happy suburbia, teens habitually hang out in 7-Eleven parking lots.

Now the giant chain, which sells everything from its well-known Big Gulps, Slurpees and the usual convenience-store fare, to makeup, sunglasses and pantyhose, hopes to entice more teens to cross its threshold with new private-label brands, as well as trendy products exclusive to the retailer.

‘It’s important to keep on the leading edge and provide what customers want,’ says Trish Lee, communications manager at 7-Eleven Canada in Vancouver, adding that the company leverages its global buying power to help get early deliveries. ‘You need to have the right products at the right time.’ Lee says 7-Eleven attempts to get the next all-the-rage items 60 to 90 days before the competition does.

The teen market is thriving; last year south of the border, 12- to- 19-year-olds collectively spent $155 billion US, according to Teen Research Unlimited, a marketing-research firm based in Northbrook, Ill. As a result, 7-Eleven likely sees an opportunity to court kids, says Max Valiquette, president of Toronto-based marketing consultancy Youthography. He adds that it likely faces competition not only from other convenience stores, but also from specialty and grocery shops. ‘Young people will hang out at a 7-Eleven if it’s close to home or school, but no one in the convenience store category has figured out a way to properly service this market and give it what it wants.’

For her part, Lee says 7-Eleven aims to be a destination by keeping its finger on the pulse of pop culture, figuring out what’s up-and-coming and building awareness among youth, so if teens see a product on TV, they know they can find it at the neighbourhood 7-Eleven.

For instance, this month the chain, which has 495 stores across Canada and an even larger presence in the U.S., aims to be the first to introduce the latest launch from BellyWashers, a vitamin C drink that caters to youth by splashing colourful images of kid-friendly characters on its reusable plastic bottles. This time, a trio of cute-but-tough-as-nails superhero cartoon characters, The Powerpuff Girls, have its stage.

Kathy Ver Eecke, VP of marketing for BellyWashers in Atlanta, Ga., says the brand gives 7-Eleven’s Hawaii stores a 30- to 45-day lead on product and will likely expand this strategy with the chain. ‘It’s certainly something we’re perfectly happy to do, and we will do more in the future,’ she says, adding that BellyWashers will advertise 7-Eleven exclusives on its Web site.

Although the Powerpuff Girls isn’t an ‘exclusive’ arrangement per se, meaning the retailer likely won’t have the product 30 days before its rivals, Lee believes that when kids see the item advertised, they will know what to do: hop on their scooters and head over to the nearest ‘Sev.’

What will inspire them to do that? According to Lee, the chain works hard to develop a reputation among early adopters by flagging hot new exclusives in radio ad campaigns created by AOR Bryant, Fulton & Shee Advertising in Vancouver. This is reinforced through point-of-purchase in the store, where the latest cool products are tagged as ‘new items’ with signs that slide into shelf rails. ‘We direct customers, so they know that when they see these tags, a new product is on the shelf,’ says Lee.

Also on the agenda to lure youth into stores this summer: Britney Spears-branded fountain cups through a partnership with Pepsi – the cleavage-exposing pop diva is a spokesperson for the cola manufacturer – and Mountain Dew Code Red Slurpees, featuring the soft-drink company’s new cherry flavour launched last month.

Proprietary labels, which include the retailer’s popular Big Gulp and Slurpee, account for a high percentage of the chain’s sales. A press release from 7-Eleven’s headquarters in Dallas reports that the retailer sells 11-million Slurpees monthly. Private-label products also tend to be advertised on radio commercials, where they are tagged as ‘only at 7-Eleven.’ According to Lee, these spots drive store traffic.

Recently, 7-Eleven introduced two new private label collections: igear sunglasses and Heaven Sent pantyhose, which it hopes will appeal to its 18- to 34-year-old customer, as well as a younger set. ‘It’s part of popular culture for teens to go to 7-Eleven and get a quick bite, a Slurpee and meet their friends,’ says Lee. ‘Now they can pick up their sunglasses or pantyhose.’

Lee says the pantyhose, which are crammed into a small, plastic package, were developed with convenience in mind. ‘As you build brands speaking to the convenience of customers, you’re also building the brand of 7-Eleven.’

But Valiquette warns that the success of a private label depends on its relevance to the youth demographic. He doesn’t see a problem with sunglasses, but says young women may not feel comfortable buying pantyhose in front of their peers. ‘That just seems like an invitation to get mocked,’ he says. ‘It would be tough for 7-Eleven to create a really cool youth brand, but they will be able to create a serviceable one. As long as it’s done properly.’ The reason 7-Eleven isn’t likely to strike gold with a youth proprietary line is because it is a brand warehouse, as opposed to a brand creator, he explains. ‘You don’t go there to buy private label, you go there to buy the brands they carry.’

Valiquette also believes it will be a challenge for the chain to make deep inroads with teens through product exclusives. ‘If all they have is 60 days, I wonder if they could create enough buzz around it to have an impact on sales,’ he says. ‘It depends on to what extent they publicize it.’

Despite its efforts so far, the retailer hasn’t become a destination for kids yet, he adds. ‘There hasn’t been a lengthy strategy that has had a grand effect on how youth feel about 7-Eleven. It’s convenience. It doesn’t have a brand personality to develop from and that just [makes it] difficult.’