It’s a Wawa World

Forget Comcast and Sunoco—the most powerful economic force in Philadelphia these days is the one making your Shorti. How our homegrown convenience store went from cult favorite … to superpower

Wawa began pumping gasoline in 1996 and now sells close to 1.4 billion gallons a year, from 297 locations. That’s about one percent of all gas sold in the country. The Oil Price Information Service ranks Wawa first among all U.S. gas stations in “market efficiency,” which is market share relative to the number of outlets. Two years ago, Wawa was the impetus behind a $72 million expansion at the Port of Wilmington, where oil distributor Magellan Midstream Partners built 11 massive fuel tanks to hold gas for the company. (Wawa works with Chevron and other suppliers to import its already-refined gas.)

In 2009, shortly after Phillies announcer Harry Kalas passed away, Wawa made a deal to be the exclusive purveyor of a book called Remembering Harry Kalas. It was the first book Wawa ever sold. And it sold, all right: 60,000 copies in 60 days, more than most books sell in a lifetime. In April 2010, the chain celebrated its one-billionth in-store ATM transaction. Wawa famously charges no usage fee, so it boasted of having saved its customers $1.3 billion in surcharges. Still, the company makes money from the ATMs, because PNC Bank pays Wawa to put them in the stores.

As it’s grown, Wawa has hoisted a handful of regional brands along with it. It’s the number one convenience-store seller of Herr’s chips and a top account for Amoroso’s hoagie rolls, Tastykake (whose problems, insiders say, were unrelated to Wawa) and the Sunday Inquirer. The company’s impact on local jobs isn’t about just its own 17,000 employees, but also many more along the supply chain of firms that service Wawa and its suppliers. Local companies do well enough in the relationship that they’ll alter operations and move facilities to keep Wawa happy.

“They know they’ve got vendors who will bend over backward for them and do whatever it takes to fill their needs,” says Len Amoroso, who in 2008 moved his bakery for rolls for Wawa hoagies from Philly to Vineland, New Jersey, because, he says, Wawa wanted him closer to its central distribution facility.

But Wawa isn’t just getting big. It’s getting different, too. The chain has spent years winnowing the selection of dust-gathering dry goods on its shelves while enlarging its in-store food-prep areas and focusing on super-sized stores and gas stations. Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at Wharton, says when you think about it, Wawa might not even be a convenience store in the traditional sense anymore—the place you’d go as a last resort for a can of soup. That role has been assumed by drugstores like CVS, or dollar stores. Really, Hoch says, “Wawa has become a fast-food restaurant with a gas station.”

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  • Zip

    Check your AP Stylebook, please. It’s “Canada” goose, not “Canadian” goose.

  • Katie

    The proposed Conshohocken Super Wawa that was stopped by a “hurtful Stop Wawa campaign on Facebook”, has not been stopped. Despite the 300 residents shouting at a Borough meeting, “we don’t want it, we don’t need it”(http://tinyurl.com/3gwa62g), the developers push full speed ahead.

    Behind the scenes they are making sure the deal quietly moves forward. Morethanthecurve.com has reported a rumored organized effort funded by developers and lawyers to “put in place developer friendly municipal governments and solicitors (borough/township lawyers) across Montco” (http://tinyurl.com/3sjtck6).

    Residents see a critical change to the fiber of Conshohocken if this is developed. This Wal-Mart like megastore will endanger the delis, gas stations, retail and convenience stores, throughout Conshohocken. This would be the third Wawa in the immediate area and will lead to at least ½ a dozen local gas stations almost immediately closing. Sites that cannot quickly be redeveloped because of the underground storage tanks and environmental issues they pose. Making matters worse, this Super Wawa will have diesel fuel, bringing delivery trucks 24/7 through the residential community.

    Residents along Fayette Street vehemently oppose it, for traffic reasons, children safety and the future of their neighborhood. Concerns that fall by the wayside of Wawa attorneys/developers. facebook.com/stopwawa.

  • Fred

    While Wawa is certainly the pride of the Philadelphia area, it should be noted that in the late 1980′s, an internal scandal at Wawa resulted in the hiring of a New York-area purchaser who broke contracts with all Philadelphia vendors and signed on with primarily New York companies. It was not the fault of the family in charge of Wawa, but it was an embarrassing part of the history. I represent a family that lost 80 percent of our business because of that incident, so I am slightly bitter but I think it still is worth mentioning.

  • Amber

    I’m orginally from western PA and a veteran Sheetz customer. When I relocated to the Bucks County area three years ago, I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any Sheetz around, All Wawas. I mostly stick to 7-11 for coffee, and wawa for gas. Nothing Wawa makes compares to a Sheetz MTO!

  • Joe

    I think its funny when you hear about these communities opposing wawa’s being put in their towns. It’s funny because when it does finally get pushed through the approval process and the wawa opens for business, all of those masses who had previously opposed the store are suddenly frequent shoppers. If you don’t like wawa then dont shop there and go ahead and pay 20 more cents a gallon on gas at the dot shop station across the street where the indian guy is talking on his cell phone the whole time and couldnt give 2 shits about you.

  • Concerned

    I wonder what percentage of the resistance to the Wawa in Conshochocken is by business owners on Fayette, specifically gas station owners. I have no pity for the prospects of an oligarchy that charges 10-20 cents more per gallon on average than every surrounding community. Stop gouging the customers, and we won’t demand alternatives.