Andrea Mitchell yesterday on MSNBC ripped Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over his much-discussed remarks about the sandwich-ordering system at Wawa convenience stores. In a Pennsylvania campaign stop, Romney spoke in passionate terms about the efficiencies of the hoagie device: “I wanted to order a sandwich. You press a little touchtone keypad. All right, you just touch that....touch this, touch this, touch this, go pay the cashier, there’s your sandwich.”
Mitchell suggested that the touch-screen spasm amounted to Romney’s ”supermarket scanner” moment. The message: Romney is out of touch.
Leaving aside the fraughtness of the supermarket-scanner tale relating to George H.W. Bush, Mitchell’s remark is a cheap shot based on the structure of the convenience-store industry. Sandwich kiosks of the sort Romney was hyping, as it turns out, aren’t a staple of the gas-and-eat business.
As of this very moment, there are 148,126 convenience stores that make America great. Of that number, guess what percentage have fancy, candidate-impressing sando-kiosks. Twenty-five percent? Thirty? Try about one percent, Andrea Mitchell.
That helpful stat comes from Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). Sando-kiosk-embracing chains, says Lenard, include Wawa (600 stores), Sheetz (416 stores), not to mention smaller ones such as Royal Farms (Md.), Tedeschi Food Shops (Mass.), Delta Sonic (upstate N.Y,) and Quick Chek Food Stores (N.J.). A massive 62 percent of convenience stores countrywide are mom and pop enterprises — known to the NACS as “one-store operators” — and they’re the “least likely” to have the kiosks, says Lenard.
Wawa kills it on sando-kiosks. This story in the Philadelphia Inquirer speaks of a pilot project by the company to test the implementation of the touch-screens. That was in 2001. In a random survey of a few Delaware Wawa stores, clerks noted that the technology has been in their midst for years. Lori Bruce, a spokeswoman for Wawa, passes along word that the touch screens underwent an enhancement this April, packing a “’Wow’ factor through the addition of appetizing food photography and graphics. It’s been a real attention grabber and a great enhancement and aid to the customer experience.”
Accordingly: Expressing any degree of enthusiasm or excitement about the wonders of Wawa’s sando-kiosks delivers no message whatsoever that you’re out of touch with America.
In fact, a case could be made to the contrary: Pennsylvania is the Silicon Valley of the sando-kiosk. According to Lenard, convenience-store competition is perhaps no keener anywhere across the country than among the hills and truck-heavy corridors of southern Pennsylvania. “The York, Pa., area is probably as competitive as you’re going to get,” says Lenard. “You have Sheetz, Wawa and Rutter’s.”
Lenard has the goods to back up the contention: A few years back, the NACS participated in a global convenience-store summit. Where to hold that confab? York! “That’s where international attendees wanted to go,” says Lenard. (Perhaps they wanted to check out the kiosks and crank out some bench-presses in the same visit). Rick Santorum would have done better in the primaries if only he’d done more to tout Pennsylvania’s leadership in convenience.
So Romney was right to marvel about Wawa. He was right to hype the sando-screen, which puts thousands of other convenience stores to shame. Many of the laggards, too, are in California, where Romney is known to spend a day or two. Out there, says Lenard, “Customers don’t expect to buy gas and food in the same lcoation.” Massachusetts isn’t a prominent sando-kiosk state, either: “Like many of the other New England states, convenience stores in Massachusetts tend to be smaller footprints, and often don’t include gas sales, since they were corner stores before fuel became big in our industry,” says Lenard.
Mitchell needs to understand so much more about the convenience-store business before she attempts another Wawa-based slam. If she wants to paint Romney as out of touch, try horses, Cadillacs or NASCAR. Not sando-kiosks.