Convenience stores do not live by bread and bread-related items alone. Sometimes the little things add up when evaluating the merits of your local gas and go. Sure, subs and pretzels are important, but what about customer service and other intangibles that aren’t as easily quantified? And being that this is the holiday season, how likely is your favorite mini market to sustain your festive spirit?
So…before we traverse the last leg of our journey of convenience, let’s recap: I’ve broken down the Wawa/Sheetz experience into four essential categories, and have delved into each with as much impartiality as I could possibly muster. We are finally to the end of the journey, so read on to the very bottom to find out who the overall winner is of our four-part escapade.
Alright, let’s do this.
Round 4 – Customer Service, Intangibles, & Holiday Charm
As a seasoned veteran of the mystery shopping game (yes, mystery shopping is a real thing), I have solid experience entering stores and eateries under the guise of Joe Q. Customer only to secretly record hard data about the customer experience. I hoped to bring my background to this experiment when attempting to gauge each store on their customer service proficiency.
This category was a little more difficult to evaluate. While food is pretty uniform throughout each store’s offerings, the store appearances/conditions can vary greatly. Most newer Wawa’s are “Super Wawas” (they can fly!) complete with gas stations, while there are still some old school low-ceiling smaller models still on the market. I tried to limit my comparison to the four trips I made to the Wawa/Sheeetz stores in the Eastern PA/Western NJ area. One mystery shopping tip I picked up was to ask an employee if they could help you find an item (I went with Swedish Fish). I also noted my general interactions with employees at both the registers and food service areas.
Wawa customer service did not disappoint. I can’t think of a single employee I encountered that didn’t act friendly and willing to help. As a longtime customer of Wawa I can say this has pretty much held true as far as I can remember. The employees appear genuinely friendly and happy about being at work. I asked the cashier at the register where the Swedish Fish were located, and while he was a bit slow on the uptake, his fellow cashier pointed them out for me (they were right at the register…what a dumbass).
At one stop as I was perusing the sandwich offerings, an employee randomly came up to tell me that the peppercorn turkey wrap was his favorite. Was it somewhat intrusive and creepy? Probably. But it was yet another nice example of everyone on team Wawa being on the same page and doing their best to promote the brand.
Positives: Friendly, helpful, knowledgeable
With less background on the Sheetz customer experience, I wasn’t sure if the same helpfulness would emerge….but it did. Much like Wawa, every Sheetz employee I spoke with seemed genuinely friendly. The cashier pointed out where the Swedish Fish were located, no problem, and even answered some other questions I had about the menu (“sorry son, no potato salad in these parts”). On one visit, a deli worker even brought my food right up to the register with a smile. Hooray!
Positives: Friendly, helpful, knowledgeable
Customer Service Winner: Tie. I can’t say anything bad about either store’s employees or the way they treated me as a customer. Great job all around.
So what else makes a great convenience store? Restrooms! Well yeah, pooping in comfort and relative cleanliness is important. But how about music, general store cleanliness, branding, the rewards program, and merchandising? Well…how about those categorical apples? How about them?!!!?? And let’s not forget the oh-so-hard-to-quantify “atmosphere”. Don’t forget it. Don’t you do it.
As stated earlier, Wawa’s can often vary in size and scope (there are even a few Wawa’s out there with NO restrooms…no WeeWee at these Wawas) so your bathroom experience may vary. In general though, I had no issue in any of the Wawa bathrooms I visited. They were all clean, plenty of TP, with no crazy graffiti or anything (not even a “Wawa Rulez, Sheetz Droolz”). The in-store music was pretty standard, greatest hits-type music and switching over to Christmas hits in December.
I do appreciate the signage/branding throughout the store. Aligning themselves with the Philadelphia Eagles is about as Philly a thing as you can do (other than maybe “Boo” ing your customers as they enter) to endear yourself to the region. It’s clear from seeing the red and yellow popping up everywhere throughout the store that you are in Wawa country (do they share a border with Flavor Country?).
The Rewards Program at Wawa is kind of hit or miss. I feel like Wawa hasn’t fully embraced or promoted this program and that’s kind of by design. If you have a Wawa gift card and download the Wawa App then every purchase you make is recorded towards hitting a goal of fifty dollars spent. Once you’ve spent $50 you will be given a choice of usually three rewards (could be a free sub, a coffee, a salad, etc.). You have no say in what this reward will actually be and you only have a limited time to redeem it (is yogurt parfait really a “reward”?).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone in a Wawa use their smart phone to pay for their order or discuss the Rewards program. The first rule of Wawa Rewards Program, is no one talks about Wawa Rewards Program? I think they keep it purposely vague to keep the lines moving. Besides If everybody was fussing with their rewards card maybe this would slow traffic down in the store…or maybe people just hate savings. Besides, if they really cared about this program, wouldn’t they have come up with a more creative name than just “Wawa Rewards Program”?
If there’s a product that you can slap a Wawa logo on, Wawa’s got you covered. They also sell their own Keurig K Cups and a lovely Christmas gift set (see above) for that Wawa fan on your list. Additional items like t shirts, beach towels, Hoagiefest items, and even camo hats, can be purchased through store.wawa.com.
Positives: Lots of products for sale, good branding, adequate restrooms
Upon entering, it’s clear that Sheetz has a pleasant store environment. It’s clean, fresh, and new, and the bathrooms are no exception. I was personally impressed by the Sheetz I visited that had not only a hand dyer but ALSO paper towels. I dont’ know anything at all about bathroom tile, but I’m pretty sure they use fine Corinthian marble in their restrooms. Well, they probably don’t, but it was fancy looking for a gas station bathroom, I tell you what. And they had a non-grody-looking water fountain! Kudos all around.
The branding of the Sheetz store is certainly present, but its just not as instantly recognizeable as Wawa’s. If you blindfolded me and dropped me in a Wawa (surpisingly, this has only happened twice in my life) I think I’d know right away where I was. I don’t think the same could be said for Sheetz. Maybe its my slight lack of familiarity with the brand, but I feel like a Sheetz could be any of a number of gas station markets.
The Sheetz rewards program (officially the Sheetzier MySheetz Card) certainly has a leg up on Wawa. They sure do like using variations of the word Sheetz in everything too (is this perhaps an ode to Philadelphia’s obnoxious habit of spelling “f” words with a “ph”?). A gift card doesn’t have to be attached to the account, rather a free card can be scanned during any purchase and points accumulate towards various reward items throughout the store (ones that you can actually choose for yourself).
Sheetzshop.com is Sheetz’ very robust online store, where you can pick up a Sheetz shirt with the state logo for every state they have a location. They also have a lot of products with the saying “Sheetz Freak” as well as skateboard and iphone skins and even a pair of Sheetz branded Converse shoes.
Positives: Clean, bodacious restrooms
Negatives: No real distinct charm or atmosphere.
Intangibles Winner: Wawa – although you could make the argument that Sheetz seems more fresh and modern, there’s a certain intangible charm and neighborhood appeal that can’t be denied at Wawa. Maybe its a generational thing, but there’s just something slightly old-school about Wawa that gives it character that Sheetz’ often slick presentation can’t match.
While most people probably wouldn’t choose to spend their holidays inside a convenience store (which actually would not be in any way convenient), chances are you’ll pop inside one during the Fall/Early Winter season. This, by the way, is the only “holiday season”. I don’t care how many presidents have birthdays in February. So which store can provide the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with…well you know the rest, Clark.
So, in mid December I walked into an older-model, kind of rundown strip mall-style Wawa in let’s just say a less desirable part of town (it shared part of the strip with a condom store, so yeah) with a clientele that let’s just say could use a bath and a shave. But ya know what? Everyone seemed to know each other. Someone walked through the front door and you would have thought this was Norm walking into Cheers. The customers and employees shared a good laugh. One customer complimented the deli worker on the sandwich she made (“that’s why I always come to this store”).The speakers were playing the Muppets version of the 12 Days of Christmas. And at that moment, all was right with the world.
On a more tangible level, Wawa really goes all out during the holiday season. If you’ve never had a Wawa Gobbler at Thanksgiving, then you probably hate Thanksgiving…and America…and mostly the Pilgrims. And check out these crazy new winter donuts! They have words and snowmen. What? Innovative donut technology just for the Christmas season! Yeah, I want to spend Christmas in Wawa!
Positives: Christmas Charm that would make Santa blush, space-aged donuts
Negatives: Hard to convince family to actually spend Christmas with you in a Wawa.
You know what Sheetz does for Christmas? They put out a donut with red and green sprinkles. And maybe they put out a few pre-packaged Christmas cookies. Sure, they may have some Christmas music playing, but outside of that, you could probably walk through the store and not even realize what season you’re in. Happy Holidays my foot!They don’t even have a Christmas-themed coffee on tap. Huh?
Positives: I don’t think they actually HATE Christmas and its associated merriment per se
Negatives: Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
Holiday Cheer Winner: Wawa. Ho, ho ho, wouldn’t ya know…it’s Wawa by 8 reindeer’s lengths.
So, despite doing nothing really wrong, Sheetz just doesn’t stack up when it comes to the more intangible qualities that make a convenience store a home. Yeah, it’s a home now I guess. Perhaps its some unfair sentimentality on my part, but Sheetz despite it’s friendly employees, clean store, and lovely restrooms, doesn’t have the authenticity and atmosphere of Wawa. With the win, Wawa ties up our series at 1-1-2.
AND YOUR OVERALL WINNER is..
Before I reveal the winner, let me just say that I learned a whole lot in this process. First and foremost I realized how blessed the residents of the greater PA region are to have such stellar convenience store options. Coming in to the game already pretty familiar with Wawa, I learned a lot about Sheetz and what they do well and where they’re lacking. Going forward, I know that if I need a good sub (ooh, my North Jersey roots are showing…I mean “hoagie”), I’m definitely going to Wawa, but if I’m feeling chicken fingers, then Sheetz is the place.
But of course, a tie would be pretty lame. Alas, a winner must be chosen, and although it was very close in many categories, and although Sheetz clearly outperformed Wawa in several categories, my heart still says WAWA is the best convenience store. There’s just something so Philly about a place that can make a great sub and pretzel. The fact that a large chain store can be so revered in a city like Philly which has so many great food options, should tell you something.
So for those who are new to the area, you can’t go terribly wrong at either establishment. For those who are hardcore in one camp or the other, might you please consider giving the “enemy” another chance (or don’t, see if I give two Sheetz about it)? Regardless of where you choose to patronize this holiday season, just be grateful that you’re not in a crappy 7-11.