The Birth of Convenience Retailing
When a gallon of milk cost 56 cents and ice was sold in blocks rather than bags for ice boxes back in 1927, an enterprising Southland Ice Company employee, “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green, began offering milk, bread and eggs from the ice house.
He quickly saw a need to carry these items for customers who were out of these everyday staples. He sold a lot of these items on Sundays and evenings when grocery stores were closed.
Realizing the possibilities of Uncle Johnny’s idea to provide customers what they wanted and when they needed it, Joe C. Thompson, Jr., one of the founders and later president and chairman of The Southland Corporation, began selling the product line at other ice-dock locations. At the time, the company had eight ice plants and 21 retail ice docks.
Thus convenience retailing was born. More and more customers caught on to this new idea, and the company increased to 60 Southland-owned retail ice docks within a decade.
The Customer Appeal Grows
Automobiles were becoming more common and needed fuel, a fact not lost on the little Dallas ice company. Southland ice docks began selling gasoline in 1928, again appealing to what the customer needed. Customers also liked that the ice docks were built 60 feet back so they could conveniently pull in and out.
By 1936, people would come from miles to shop at the ice plant/retail shop combo that offered curb service, staples, canned goods and in season, ice-cold watermelon. The retail ice houses attracted even more customers after the repeal of Prohibition. With the sale of liquor and beer, sales increased dramatically, and stores began to grow again after the depression.
Toting Away Your Purchases
The company's early convenience outlets were known as Tote'm stores because customers "toted" away their purchases, and many stores even sported genuine Alaskan totem poles in front.
In 1946, the Tote'm name changed to 7-Eleven to reflect the stores' new, extended hours - 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., seven days a week.
As convenience stores grew in the 1950s, the retail outlets then served as the “mom-and-pop” neighborhood grocery store, the “ice-house,” the dairy store, the supermarket and the delicatessen all in one location.
At this time, 7-Eleven stores opened in other parts of Texas for the first time. Shortly after that, 7-Eleven expanded across state lines to Florida, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. 7-Eleven now operated hundreds of stores across the country.
Creating a Chain Reaction
With increased ownership of automobiles, the industry grew rapidly along with the consumer’s need for convenient shopping. Convenience stores began establishing themselves in new suburbs and areas too small to require a supermarket. 7-Eleven capitalized on this idea and grew to 1,000 stores by 1963.
In the same year, one 7-Eleven® store in Austin, Texas, located close to the University of Texas, stayed so busy after a football game, it couldn’t close. The store just remained open. That night was so successful; the store began staying open 24 hours every weekend. Soon other 7-Eleven stores followed suit, staying open around the clock.
A Drink Revolution
Having a long and unique history, the Slurpee® drink created another reason for customers to come to 7-Eleven, and often. The sensational semi-frozen carbonated beverage was originally introduced as “Icee” in 1965 and later re-launched as a Slurpee drink by 7-Eleven’s ad agency. The drink’s appeal gave 7-Eleven the opportunity to advertise and promote a product like never before at more than 1,500 stores.
Giving customers another take on a popular drink, coffee, 7-Eleven introduced coffee-to-go in Long Island, N.Y. around this time. This idea was a hit with customers and 7-Eleven has since offered customers quick and easy ways to serve themselves their favorite drink, the way they like it.
Expanding Around the Globe
By the end of 1969, 7-Eleven was better known for Slurpee drinks and grew to approximately 3,500 stores in the United States and went international by opening stores in Canada. Some of the growth was accomplished when 7-Eleven entered the franchising business with the purchase of 127 franchised California Speedee Marts in 1963.
The company then went south to Mexico and signed a licensing agreement. In 1974, the company reached its 5,000th-store milestone, and continued its international expansion overseas in Japan.
Self-Service Transformed the Convenience Industry
As work routines and leisure lives continued to change, self-service was key in the changing needs of time-pressed customers. Beginning in the 1970s, self-serve gasoline came to growing 7-Eleven convenience store locations.
Several little inventions and machines, like the counter-top microwave oven, self-serve soda fountain and roller grill, created new quick- and self-service merchnadising opportunities. These conveniences gave 7-Eleven the Big Gulp® fountain drink and Big Bite® hot dog.
These conveniences quickly became popular in other countries, as well. 7-Eleven stores opened in Australia, Sweden, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, Malaysia and the Philippines in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The numbers of International outlets at this time were some 2,500 stores.
Delivering Only the Best
With people working more and spending less time at home, customers’’ expectations began to change. Choices broadened, and consumers demanded not only speed and ease of service, but also variety, quality and value. In response to the 1990s’ cultural shift to a healthier lifestyle, 7-Eleven built an infrastructure to support fresh food products delivered daily, even on holidays, at its 15,000 stores.
The company’s exclusive and intricate logistics system enabled stores to receive combined deliveries of high quality, “freshness-sensitive” products daily reducing the number of deliveries its stores must accept.
With a new logistics system in place, the company began to offer fresh, proprietary products like Café Select® coffees, Deli Central™ sandwiches, World Ovens® pastry bakery items, and the Café Cooler™ frozen cappuccinos, entering the fresh food-to-go market.
In the early 2000s, 7-Eleven focused on bringing this value to the customer and grew to 25,000 stores around the time the company celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Building on an Idea
Since its inception, 7-Eleven has banked not on just one great idea, but many to remain successful. 7-Eleven has had numerous accomplishments and milestones in its long history, including a number of "firsts" through the years. 7-Eleven was the first convenience and food retailer to advertise on television, provide convenience-oriented customers with fresh-brewed coffee in to-go cups, offer self-serve soda fountain drinks and the first to offer monster-sized drinks, Big Gulp® beverages, sell pre-paid phone cards, offer self-serve ATM services and to offer cash payment for online bills, purchases or load funds into an e-wallet with PayNearMe.
Recently, with the budget-conscious customer in mind, 7-Eleven was one of the first convenience retailers to offer its private brands, 7-Select™ and 7-Eleven, for more than 300 food and non-food items.
Where It All Began and Continues Today
The original 7-Eleven store/ice dock, although rebuilt a few times, remained open at its original birthplace in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas until 1995. Still headquartered in its birthplace city, 7-Eleven remains an active member of the Dallas community.
Through 86 years in business, 7-Eleven’s mission is still to serve its customers at its close to 51,600 stores around the world. You’ll continue to find among the staples, fresh sandwiches, new-age beverages and the product that started it all – ICE – but now in a convenient-to-carry package for home entertainment.