Nizar Ali - Discount Smokes
Nizar Ali Rawjani and his brother, Amir, have been convenience store operators for over ten years. They currently own and operate nine Conoco, Phillips 66, Shell and BP-branded locations throughout the Kansas City Metro and have plans to add more locations soon. Nizar and Amir are both involved in their religious community and also support CarterEnergy and others in their industry through state lobbying efforts on c-store issues. It was a pleasure to speak with Nizar about their business challenges and achievements.
What is your personal/retail background? What inspired you to get into the convenience store business?
I became involved in business by helping my father at the age of 12. At 18, I started my own business selling timber. When that business became stable, and I had the opportunity to leave it to my father and my brother, I went to college and got a Bachelors of Commerce, then an MBA. I then worked in banking as an account officer, and at the same time, started another business with my brother and a partner. We manufactured and exported leather garment and sold them to retailers in Uzbekistan, as well to our retail operations in Pakistan and Uzbekistan. We were also involved in several other retail ventures, including a one-hour photo store and grocery stores in Uzbekistan.
When I moved to the U.S., a number of friends were in the convenience store business and were successful. For me, it has been as new and fascinating as it was 13 years ago. I have looked into several other businesses, but I don’t find any as interesting. The freedom and opportunity to make changes, meet customers’ needs, bring improvement and adapt to the constantly changing environment always challenges and motivates me.
What challenges have you faced and what have you done to address them?
I consider shrinking margins in cigarettes our number one challenge. The other challenge has been the constant emergence of smokes shops. To deal with shrinking margins on cigarettes, we have concentrated on other key c-store categories including soda, candy, snacks, fountain and novelties, as well as the e-cig. We started implementing a four-point strategy, which focuses on store appearance, cleanliness, increased selection and the availability of merchandise. Our focus on these factors has resulted in higher sales of these high margin items. To deal with the challenge of the smokes shops, we focus on better hours, availability of merchandise and better service.
What key elements did you implement into your store?
We try to focus on price, store cleanliness, selection and the availability of merchandise. We look into all key areas of gas stations and convenience stores and implement these important points. We give equal importance to gas, tobacco, beer, liquor and grocery and apply our key elements to all these segments vigorously.
What makes you different from your competitors?
First, we divide our competition in to three different segments. (1) Big Box stores (2) Single and multi-store owners and (3) Smokes shops. Big Boxes are increasingly focusing on food services, which gives us the opportunity to cater to the needs of those customers who want better variety and prices on tobacco, beer and liquor. Second, we try to outperform single and multi-store owners through better execution of our strategy. Third, we differentiate ourselves from smokes shops by putting an emphasis on services and selection.
What has been your key to success so far?
The key to our success has been working on a predefined strategy as a Big Box store, yet retaining the personal touch and attention of single-owner store.
Why Carter Energy?
We have been working with CarterEnergy since 2002. There have been several occasions where we had an option to select another fuel supplier, but we’ve stayed with them. CarterEnergy is a great supporter of retailers and their very foundation is based on improving the retailer’s operation and performance. They have various programs to fulfill the needs of a wide variety of customers. We do face some issues every now and then, but they have always tried to solve those problems and make proactive efforts to avoid them in future. Overall, CarterEnergy has the best support system and transparent policies.
How does CarterEnergy add value to your business?
CarterEnergy adds value to our business by improving our operations and performance beyond gasoline. Their fair pricing and transparent drafting provides us a level playing field with our competitors, and their innovative programs give us an edge. Most of their customer representatives have been in the Gas Station business, which gives them the advantage of understanding the problems we convenience store owners face so we can work on solutions.
What are some possible future directions for your store?
One direction is to make food service a key segment of our stores. But at the same time, we want to continue to cater to the needs of our core customers.