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

The mix of stuff each store gets is unique, based on historical munching patterns. “You can go to one store and they sell glazed doughnuts all over the place, but go two miles down the road and that town is buying the cruller,” explains Chuck Taylor, manager of Penske’s Northeast carriage contracts.

Wawa stores are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike—but basically they’re all snow. The Wildwood Wawa has a neon retro- exterior. Princeton’s has a hippie vibe. Inside, the look is standard: bright and clean, with the carnival-colored beverage case in the back, big posters of food where you order, and the eclectic customer mix of cops, punks, geezers, teens and moms. Ed Herr says the diverse clientele is ideal for when Herr’s test-markets new chip flavors: “They might have a Walmart shopper, a supermarket shopper, a drugstore shopper,” he says.

Because the company is private and refuses to franchise—all stores are Wawa-owned—it has expanded at a consistent but sensible pace, avoiding Wall Street’s destructive imperative to grow at an ever-faster rate. The chain added 24 stores in 2010 and plans to open around 20 more this year. If Wawa wanted, it could expand all the way up and down I-95, from New England to Florida, with little competition, says retail analyst Burt Flickinger. (Wawa dropped stores in Connecticut but has announced a plan to open in Florida in late 2012).

Rather than sprawl too much, the company chooses to backfill where it already dominates and keep existing stores productive. Old Wawas don’t get decrepit; they get spruced up or shut down. As former Wawa president and CEO Dick Wood once articulated: “Leave the stars alone; close the dogs; feed the children; and milk the cows.” Even the gritty Wawa at 17th and Arch gets a face-lift this fall, though Wawa has largely forsaken Center City (and North and West Philly).

Still, there’s a transition in progress, and it hasn’t always been smooth. Traditional Wawas were 2,000 to 3,000 square feet; new Wawas with gas pumps, the only kind the company builds now, are between 5,500 and 7,400 square feet, on three acres or more. Half of all Wawas now sell gasoline. Some communities have pushed back and said no to the bigger footprint. In Berwyn, Wawa abandoned plans after being met with local resistance over traffic and development concerns. In Conshohocken, where Wawa considered adding a location, opponents started a hurtful “Stop Wawa” campaign on Facebook. CEO Stoeckel makes no apologies for the company’s growth.

“We compete with everyone,” he says. “McDonald’s is a competitor, Subway. For things like coffee, our competitors are the big national chains—Starbucks. Competition’s good for the consumer.”

It hasn’t been bad for Wawa, either.

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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.