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.”