Sleuthing 7-Eleven

It really hit home for me a few weeks ago during church, when I began craving a Big Gulp Pepsi with a shot of cherry flavoring. Well, 1 1/2 shots to be precise, and a Gulp rather than a Big Gulp. (I have it down to a science.) I knew the 7-Eleven (NYSE: SE  ) was literally one block away, and I knew I was going to be hauling the family there after the benediction.

That's when I fully realized how often I frequent these stores, and how I might want to be thinking about the company as an investment. (For the really curious, my mind was wandering during a hymn. I don't sing, so I have to do something while holding the hymnal and trying to blend in.)

As Peter Lynch pointed out in his classic book, One Up on Wall Street, a good place to begin looking for possible investments is with the products and services you know well and use regularly. Certainly, 7-Eleven qualifies for me. However, Lynch also prefers smaller and faster growing companies that are still flying below Wall Street's radar, so this doesn't match all his criteria.

Still, I'm fairly certain that management's innovation and its attention to the total customer experience will continue to feed sales growth. Here are some examples of what keeps me and millions of others coming back on a regular basis:

Fountain drinks with flavor shots
Right there next to the fountain soda machine sit three pump bottles containing cherry, vanilla, and lemon syrupy flavor concoctions. These allow you to create dozens of new ways to enjoy your old soda favorites as well as improve on existing combinations. (I guarantee you can make your Vanilla Coke taste better than the canned version.)

So, try a cherry shot in your Pepsi (NYSE: PEP  ) next time you visit, or lemon in your Sprite. I've yet to venture much beyond these basics; perhaps vanilla root beer would be great, or even lemon Hawaiian Punch. (Or perhaps not.)

Injectable flavor machines
Similar to what the pump bottles offer, injectable flavor machines are space-age devices that will mix the soda and flavor for you. Already tested in Austin, Texas, the machines are going into all of 7-Eleven's new stores because of their return on investment.

"We have put it in a number of different locations, and I will tell you this -- it is the first thing I have seen in years that actually drives excitement into the category," CFO Edward Moneypenny said in a recent conference call (transcript provided by CCBN StreetEvents). "We have had pretty much a steady decline in fountain sales industry-wide for years -- actually, many years. And with these machines we have completely offset that decline, and we find that we are actually increasing our fountain sales and sustaining that increase."

Fun fast food
I love the commercial with the sad fellow staring longingly at the 7-Eleven hot dogs on the rolling grill. "What's wrong?" another guy asks.

"Wife says I have to eat well-rounded meals."

"Well, they're rolling, aren't they?"

The forlorn face lights up as he orders two to go.

Of course, there's nothing unique about hot dogs rolling around behind Plexiglas. But 7-Eleven also offers "taquitos" from the same grill for $0.99 -- or three for $2.50. Add nachos and other hot food, and you've found a good place for inexpensive and tasty quick meals. (Part of the fun of writing about companies is field-testing their products.)

I certainly don't want to leave out the early-morning crowd, because it's a scientific fact that breakfast is one of the three most important meals of the day. The stores have fresh muffins, rolls, and "Dreammm Doughnuts" that rival Krispy Kreme (NYSE: KKD  ) . (Now, before you fire off an angry email, I'm only talking about room temperature donuts. I know that nothing beats hot, glazed Krispy Kremes, which will surely go down as the third most important invention in the 20th century, right behind the internal combustion engine and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) ).

Speaking of caffeine, the coffee is also excellent in most stores. The one I visit the most has a big bay of automatic brewers with several different selections -- including my favorite, Dark Mountain Roast. There are enough flavored creams and sweeteners to concoct 1,300 different combinations.

Slurpee heaven
I surely won't neglect to mention the item most identified with 7-Eleven. The Slurpee -- the only known food product that consists of 110% sugar -- has been a tradition at every store since the 1960s. I still have a big stack of Slurpee baseball trading cups in my basement that I collected as a kid from the days of Lou Brock and Willie McCovey.

Just recently, the company hit it big with two flavors that appeal to both waist revealers and waist watchers: Mountain Dew Livewire and no-calorie Diet Pepsi. Management loves it when Slurpee drinkers come into the store, because about 60% of them make other purchases.

Et cetera
There are other innovative products to keep an eye on, such as "Vcom" electronic kiosks that allow bill payments, check cashing, money transfers, and traditional ATM services.

There's even Santiago beer, the company's very own private-label premium brew. CEO Jim Keyes said he was "shocked" at the amount of media coverage the rollout received, and likened the beer to the other unique food and coffee offerings. "If people develop a taste preference for Santiago," he said, "they'll have to come back to 7-Eleven."

All of this is in addition to the services you'll find in most other convenience stores, of course. Whether it's gasoline or batteries, taquitos or cherry-vanilla Coke (NYSE: KO  ) -- I find myself visiting a 7-Eleven at least two or three times a week. It's not the only chain to offer innovative products, but it has a certain addictive factor to it that has helped drive 72 consecutive quarters of same-store sales improvement in North America.

So the company passes one test for me, and joins my shortlist of stocks for further research. Topics to be tackled in the future include its valuation and large debt load, as well as competition from the likes of Canada's Alimentation Couche-Tard -- which yesterday announced it would buy the Circle K chain from ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) .

But right now at 25,000 stores and growing, 7-Eleven is the 500-pound Slurpee of convenience stores.

Rex Moore made it through the entire column without using the phrase, "Oh thank heaven." He currently owns no companies mentioned here, but does ownsome others. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policygoes best with two shots of vanilla.


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