July 11, 2007, - 2:25 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
“Oh, thank Heaven for 7-Eleven.”
That’s one of the many advertising slogans over the years for the great American company that turns 80, today. It’s a statement that surely epitomizes the feelings of many American–and worldwide–customers that patronize this retail giant and part of Americana.
It began in 1927 as Southland Ice Company in Oak Cliff, Texas, selling blocks of ice to refrigerate food. An enterprising ice dock employee began offering milk, bread and eggs on Sundays and evenings when grocery stores were closed, which increased sales. Convenience retailing was born. Its first convenience outlets were called “Tote’m” stores.
Although the company was taken private by Japanese investors in 2005, the company, headquartered outside of Dallas, still embodies everything that’s great about the American entrepreneurial spirit and capitalism at its best. 7-Eleven stores introduced convenience-revolutionizing innovations–like 24-hour stores and in-store ATMS–which, today, we take for granted. Others, like the Big Gulp, revolutionized the politically incorrect large-sized portions for the economically-challenged. And immigrants–mostly Indians–have used the stores as a gateway to prosperity. It’s a market giant
Best known for its flagship product, 7-Eleven’s Slurpee is much more than just another cold, slushy, mass-market beverage. For 7-Eleven franchisee Anil Kumar, it was the ticket to the great American life through hard work and a way to target an unusual niche market.
Like many 7-Eleven franchisees and Slurpee purveyors, he is an immigrant from India, as are several relatives who also own and operate 7-Eleven stores. But his Oak Park, Michigan store, near Detroit is different. It is the first and one of the few 7-Eleven stores in fourteen countries to feature all-kosher Slurpees.
Before buying his 7-Eleven franchise, Kumar sold high-priced gowns and didn’t do well. He sold a Michigan pageant winner thousands of dollars worth of gowns on credit. She paid him back months later, when she became Miss USA.
When Kumar purchased his 7-Eleven franchise several years ago, the store was not doing well, but he paid the Detroit area Council of Orthodox Rabbis to kosher his machines and regularly inspect them–one of the best investments he says he ever made. As a result, his store is a success, due to large purchases of kosher Slurpees by his largely Orthodox Jewish clientele.
Kumar says Slurpees not only put his children, Shawn and Sabrina, through college but also, respectively, through law and medical school. And, he says, it has educated him about Judaism. Because of kosher Slurpees, Kumar, a devout Hindu, has been invited to bar mitzvahs and weddings by rabbis at the nearby Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Stories like Kumar’s are so common in contemporary 7-Eleven history that TV’s “The Simpsons” paid parody tribute with character “Apu,” an immigrant franchisee with an Indian accent.
And Mr. Kumar is very protective of the Slurpee, which he says can comprise up to 40% of sales at his store. When David Letterman and Rupert Jee, a deli owner who frequently appears on the late-night CBS show, discussed Jee’s new “Slurpee” machine. But Kumar, knowing that Slurpee is a registered trademark of 7-Eleven, was watching and reported them to his parent corporation franchisor. Kumar proudly recounts how, in late June, Letterman announced on his show that he and Jee could no longer refer to the new frozen drinks as “Slurpees.”
Kumar is not the only 7-Eleven franchise owner who owes much of his success to the Slurpee. His is one of several stores who make Detroit the Slurpee’s number one market in America (Winnipeg is tops world-wide). And in a tribute to America’s logic-defying consumer habits, Detroit 7-Elevens sell more Slurpees during their bitter winters than all of Florida’s 7-Elevens sell in the summer. Kumar says he sells well over 300 Slurpees per day on Detroit’s coldest days. He attributes his brisk Slurpee sales to the kosher aspect.
But while the Slurpee is well-known, many of 7-Eleven’s great entrepreneurial efforts are not.
While it’s hard to get in the door at most large chain stores if you aren’t one of the “big dogs,” 7-Eleven regularly invites average Joe entrepreneurs and little guys to introduce new products for consideration by top executives at “Product Innovation Days.” Events like these throughout the store’s history have changed the way American companies do business. 7-Eleven was the first to advertise in a national television commercial–in 1949. Before Starbucks was a glint in Howard Schulz’s eye, 7-Eleven was the first national chain to sell fresh-brewed coffee to go, the first to have a self-serve soda fountain (now also for Slurpees), the first to offer super-size drinks (making the chain a frequent target for the PC food police), the first to introduce 24-hour operations (thus, the store name), and the first to offer pre-paid phone cards. And while other stores are escaping the inner cities, 7-Eleven is profitably serving urban areas–some located in very dangerous neighborhoods and the targets of frequent late-night robberies.
Some of the store’s many other market innovations: 7-Eleven created the convenience retailing and “dashboard dining” we’re so used to, today. It was the first to sell gasoline at a convenience store and later to offer self-serve gasoline, the first convenience store chain to introduce 24-hour operations and introduce ATMs to make it easier to satisfy that craving for a hotdog in the middle of the night. It was the first national chain to offer “freedom of choice” at the soft drink fountain by offering all major soft drink brands, and the first to advertise in a national television commercial–in its 1949 “owl and rooster” ad. And the Slurpee, introduced in 1966, has been much imitated by others ever since.
7-Eleven continues to innovate, introducing financial service centers in some of its stores, and even developing products to make life easier for women on the go, with “Heaven Sent” hosiery, inexpensive pantyhose in a lipstick size container convenient for a woman’s purse.
7-11 gives millions to programs addressing issues such as literacy, reading, and crime prevention. It donates hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to local food banks through its Harvest program to help fight hunger and raised millions for the victims of September 11th.
Not everything 7-Eleven does is in the spirit of the free market. It provides money to programs addressing “multi-cultural understanding,” often a recipe for political correctness and intolerance of non-minority views. And it grants thousands of dollars in affirmative action scholarships and hiring programs for which non-minorities need not apply. The company also pays $5,000 for referrals of qualified minority franchisees, but not non-minority ones.
Still 7-Eleven, on balance, is a great American company that deserves its prominent place in American culture. Its commitment to the marketplace is the reason it has survived–albeit under different owners–for 80 years.
Like immigrant Anil Kumar said, “Slurpees and 7-Eleven helped me live the American dream.”
Tags: advertising slogans, America, Anil Kumar, Beth Yehudah, CBS, Council of Orthodox Rabbis, Dallas, David Letterman, Debbie Schlussel, deli owner, Detroit, even developing products, Florida, food, food police, franchise owner, Howard Schulz, India, local food banks, mass-market beverage, Michigan, Michigan store, Oak Park, retail giant, Rupert Jee, Sabrina, Shawn, Slurpee, Southland Ice Company, Starbucks, Texas, The Simpsons, USD, Winnipeg