At Wagner’s C-store in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, convenience extends past candy and cigarettes to high end women’s clothing and accessories.
It isn’t often that you come across a McDonald’s, a quality C-store, and a high-end woman’s boutique under one roof, but you’ll find all that and more at Wagner’s Convenience Store, part of Wittenberg Shell in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, an SSCS customer.
The business, one of over a dozen gas station/C-stores that are part of the oil company owned by Howard Wagner, is strategically located on exit 95 at the junction of highways 29 and 45, a nexus on a busy corridor that cuts across the face of the state.
Operated by manager Julie Stewart, the Wittenberg location, which first opened in 2000, was re-built and re-opened in December to accommodate the tremendous amount of store traffic generated by its prime location and pristine local reputation (there was no disruption in business as the original store remained active until the new structure, just north of it on the same lot, opened its doors).
Julie, who has worked at Wagner’s since she was thirteen (including through her college years), obviously was excited to have the chance to stock a new store based on her past experience and personal preferences. In her case, however, the possibilities represented something more significant: the opportunity to fulfill a long-time dream—running a high-end woman’s clothing and accessories boutique.
"My sister, Melissa [who is married to Howard] and I would always talk about the obscene amounts of money we’d spend in these kinds of specialty clothing shops and how it would be so cool one day to have our own," says Julie. "We saw it as the kind of business we could leave behind for our daughters, but there was a practical side to it, too. The margins on these items were big, especially when compared to the items usually sold in a C-store. I mean, it takes an awful lot of cases of candy bars to make what you can make on a fashionable purse."
But, still—putting a boutique in a C-store? Turns out the idea wasn’t that outrageous after all.
"We owned land right across from Wittenberg Shell, so Melissa and I considered that we might put together a standalone store," Julie reveals, "but then we thought about it a little bit more and talked to Howard. He pointed out that many standalone boutiques were closing because, among other things, people were just too busy to go out of their way to find them and take the time to shop in them. The new C-store we were building had a lot of space, so we decided the best way to try our dream concept out was to devote a small corner to it. We figured we’d stock quality women’s clothing, handbags, jewelry, and other accessories. We saw it as the perfect opportunity for people in a hurry to buy a nice gift while they were filling their tank."
Additionally, Julie believed that a successful boutique might help address a long-standing issue that had affected the Wittenberg store since it had originally opened. While the location’s fuel sales had always been high when compared to other gas stations, in-store sales lagged behind in comparison. While the existence of the McDonalds on the premises undoubtedly explained the relatively low sales volume of roller grill items or chips, Julie believed that giving visitors another reason to wander in through the doors, such as the kind of distinctive merchandise she envisioned carrying, might boost the purchase of other C-store items.
Howard, no stranger to the idea his wife and sister-in-law constantly discussed, agreed to give the boutique a chance. A parade of delivery people soon materialized, carrying boxes of all sizes and shapes, mannequins, jewelry cases, shelving, and other esoteric items in preparation for the opening. "I think Howard was kind of puzzled by what was going on, but at the same time he couldn’t look away,"says Julie. "He kept asking, 'What’s that for? What’s that for?' But you could tell he was really engaged."
Howard found it even harder to tear himself away from the boutique when the store opened and the experiment almost immediately began to drive a surge in store traffic that, sure enough, resulted in an uptick in the sales of the C-store’s traditional items. With virtually no marketing effort, a steady stream of customers made their way to the very special corner of the store to examine merchandise, ask for accessorizing advice, and use the fitting room, a converted wheelchair-accessible restroom with full length mirrors, clothing hooks, and complementary furnishings.
The success of the boutique from the start was no doubt aided by the fact that it arrived just as Christmas shopping season was taking off, but it soon became apparent that there would be no steep drop off in the early months of 2015—often a fallow time for retailers—thanks, in part, to waves of holiday themed items for Valentine’s Day, Easter, and so on. Smaller gift options, like cards and pocket items, proved consistently strong sellers no matter what month it was. Julie changed the boutique’s inventory with regularity, giving people a reason to return to the store again and again. Word got around about the wonderful C-store that sold some of the best gift items in the area. Momentum grew. The next thing Julie knew she had a destination location on her hands.
"One great side effect was the positive energy the boutique generated," Julie states. "People described the shopping experience with words like 'fun' and 'cool,' which was exactly the reaction we were looking for. Men, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead in a gift store, couldn’t resist buying something when they found themselves standing in the middle of one. I can’t count the times I’ve tried on a shirt for a guy with a wife or girlfriend who's 'approximately my size.' They may not like shopping, but convenient shopping . . . well that’s not so bad."
How does Julie decide what to carry? The answer is simple: she carries what appeals to her. "Now that we’re building up some sales history, I obviously pay attention to what moves, but I really do stock what I like," she says. "I go online to check my three to four favorite supplier sites and figure out what will work and what won’t. Some of it is common sense, too. Like we’re an hour away from Green Bay, so we carry a lot of football-related stuff. In fact, there was a Packer game last night and business was crazy. We just finished our first summer season and I have very little left over that I have to pack away until next year or put on sale. I feel pretty good about that."
Julie admits that the concept probably wouldn’t work in most of Howard’s other stores. Even though the population of Wittenberg is only about 1,000, and most locals frequent the other Wagner store that Julie manages—a "quieter" store a mere two blocks away—there’s something about being right off the freeway that drives the kind of business that is interested in boutique type items in an area where there are not a lot of options for finding them. Plus there is no question that being located in a brand new showcase store that carries a lot of high end food items—such as nationally-known Nueske’s applewood smoked meats, a favorite of Wisconsinites with headquarters just down the road—dovetails nicely with the boutique’s appeal.
With no end of success in sight, the future looks bright for Julie’s groundbreaking enterprise. It might seem that her increased workload could be a downside, but the entrepreneur isn’t fazed at all.
"I’m a high energy individual by nature, the kind of person that really doesn’t mind doing the books because it helps me to figure out what’s really happening in my stores," she says. "Sure I’m busier than ever, but I can do a lot of the ordering, scheduling, and whatever at home. The flexibility of managing a C-store has always appealed to me, and it really helped as I raised my five children—I could always be there to see them get on the school bus. My work and personal life ended up being a pretty good combination, about as good as C-stores and boutiques, now that I think about it."