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Gilpin students draft business plan to increase EaglesMart sales

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School-associated store affords employment opportunities

by Patty Unruh

Gilpin County High School students are getting out of the classroom and into the c-store as they work at EaglesMart, the enterprise begun in 2016 that provides real business experience for school credit. Since the convenience store opened, students have had the opportunity to receive a vocational experience alternating with class instruction.

EaglesMart, a joint project of the Gilpin County Education Foundation (GCEF) and the Gilpin County School District, is located at 135 Clear Creek Street next door to the Black Hawk post office. GCEF leases the space from the City of Black Hawk. Any profits made beyond overhead costs go to GCEF for student scholarships.

Ten young people are participating in a semester business course at the high school this term. Along with their class work, they visit the store for four hours one afternoon each month to check inventory, run the cash register, stock shelves, practice customer service, and do cleaning.

Additionally, Superintendent David MacKenzie has charged the class to come up with a plan to offer products and promotions that will attract more customers.

When this reporter stopped in on Tuesday, February 26, to talk with class members and their teacher, Craig Ball, I learned about a business plan they have been drafting to achieve this goal.

“Each student has contributed to this draft, and it is most definitely a group project,” Ball said. “On projects like this, I try to simulate the work environment by relying on each member to provide input, research, writing and editing skills, as if they were in a real office.”

He added, “I have had great success with student buy-in, because the experience is tactile. Each member must do their job to move the project forward.”

EaglesMart has three main customer bases: locals, casino and hotel patrons, and drive-by customers on the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Most of the operational and marketing ideas generated by the students focus on those groups.

Currently, the store provides a variety of standard convenience store offerings, such as candy, salty snacks, canned goods, hot coffee, microwavable food, fountain drinks, fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and packaged breakfast meats.

Students’ new ideas included offering free coffee to those who follow on Instagram, like on Facebook, or live locally; adding a Redbox DVD sales terminal; providing a free 7-Eleven network ATM inside the store; and supplying Black Hawk and Central City tourist information.

The store has an area that is mostly for consignment sales, with products ranging from local art to clothing. Students arranged items in this space to make room for more merchandise, thus hopefully increasing sales per square foot. They are considering making a display featuring “the biggest local jerky selection this side of the Missouri!” This would give the kids some Colorado products to use and advertise.

The teens hope to increase the store’s visibility with extra signage, which gave Ball an opportunity to teach about the need to work with city signage regulations.

“Black Hawk’s signage requirements are strict, as they should be. The kids will learn that the City is not always against you, but they do have rules.”

The teens are also pondering how to utilize a 100-square foot storage room that would improve sales without spending lots of money.

“We want to give people a reason to stop by here on their way home from work, like getting a pizza,” they said. “We could cook it in this back room.”

Ball agreed, but pointed out that an employee would always be needed to do the cooking.

“We won’t throw out good ideas before exploring them, though.”

EaglesMart does sell lottery tickets and tobacco products, items that are not available at Gilpin High School but that patrons in the store’s customer bases want. Ball engaged the students in a discussion about the ethics of selling such items. He reminded that grocery stores and convenience stores are now permitted to sell full-strength beer, something that somebody who is staying in the casino hotels may appreciate. Acquiring a license to sell beer and/or wine is a topic for exploration.

Putting ideas into practice requires market research. Students’ questions are: How many people visit Black Hawk as gamblers? What is the traffic count for cars driving by the store on Highway 119? How many hotel guests are there in Black Hawk? How many gambling industry employees work in the district? How many locals have post office boxes in Black Hawk? What are the profit centers in EaglesMart?

The students also propose providing a store website with products to sell online, interacting with people through Instagram, using Facebook to remind locals of offerings, and collecting an email list of locals.

Class members suggested meeting with the Black Hawk city manager for advice on how to enhance the city’s goals for the diversity of businesses; with the Casino Owners’ Association for help providing valuable services and products for the casino and hotel industry; and with the Gilpin Sheriff’s Department, Black Hawk Police and Fire Departments to learn what would help on-duty officers.

The youth enumerated the store’s many competitive advantages, such as ample parking, location on the Peak-to-Peak Highway, proximity to the Black Hawk Post Office and next-door coffee shop, and partnership with the high school. However, they noted that the the store is located outside the main casino corridor, so it’s not easy to walk to; it’s not easy to see as you approach by car; and it does not offer a gas station.

Besides drafting the business plan in class, the students carried out their usual jobs in the store – taking inventory, scanning items, and working the cash register. Other chores are taking pictures of the shelves to gauge placement of items, sweeping the floor, and cleaning windows.

“Last time we had to clean up an explosion of soda pop. That was awesome!” joked student Daniel Jewell.

Courteous customer service is vital.

“We teach them how to count change back,” Ball said. “It’s a lost art, but it’s a double check and a sign of courtesy.”

Unfortunately, the store is not as busy as would be ideal.

“I wish we had more traffic. If our shop was in Denver, we’d be working a lot on greetings and eye contact,” Ball said.

Classmates did serve a couple of guests and also practiced on each other at the cash register. Chance Williams acted as a customer and brought an item to Daniel Jewell, who was the checker.

“Are you paying with cash or card? Would you like a receipt? Thank you,” Jewell said politely.

Of course, the students can’t run EaglesMart alone. Melanie Tonn, the general manager since last July, has worked at the store for two years and is there full time five or six days a week. She helps the kids a bit when they are there, but mostly just watches them and lets them do their work.

“They are a big help,” she declared. “They really keep busy doing the cleaning and stocking.”

She felt the store provided an important service. “It’s for the school. This is a small town, and I think people would support the shop.”

The store also has an off-site advisor/manager, school board President Craig Holmes.

The students feel their work at EaglesMart is valuable in building confidence and experience for future jobs.

Michael Fry plans to become a mechanic and would like to own his own shop someday.

“I’ll apply what I learn in this class,” he decided.

Lindsy Cope chose the business class as an elective course for school credit and feels she will use it in the future. She and several of the others mentioned stocking and running the cash register as favorite activities.

It will be interesting to see the changes that take place through the students’ ideas. Make sure to help Gilpin High School by supporting EaglesMart!

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