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New convenience store owner says Hello to Farmington

Langsee Sengsavang is in the middle of explaining his policy of greeting customers when he gets a chance to offer a demonstration. The door chimes. A customer walks in. And Sengsavang, seated at a table in the Mini S Mart convenience store he has owned since December, calls out with a friendly, "Hello."

It's that kind of customer service, along with an increased attention to cleanliness and better management of inventory, that Sengsavang hopes will help turn around a business that had been closed for more than 16 months when he bought it.

When Sengsavang started asking customers why the business had closed he heard employees were not friendly. That the store was dirty. And that the former owners had trouble maintaining a consistent inventory.

Those were problems he figured he could fix.

"My strategy is, make sure this place is clean," Sengsavang said. "We have to buff this floor every month. Make it shine every month and mop the floor as soon as it's dirty."

Sengsavang also expects his employees to follow his lead when it comes to making customers feel welcome. In his mind, saying hello when someone walks in the door is a bare minimum.

"If you're really busy, say, 'Hi,'" he said. "If not, (say), 'How's it going?' Just be friendly and connect with them. Nowadays, to be competitive you really have to build a bridge with customers. They're the ones who are paying your bills."

So far the approach seems to be working. Sengsavang greets regulars by name and has customers who come in just to see him. Business has grown steadily. In December, the Mini S Mart had 1,000 customers. In January there were 1,200. By June there were 3,900, and last month there were 4,900.

That's pretty good for a guy who's relatively new to the retail world. Sengsavang, who came to the United States from Laos in 1981, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1991 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He spent the next 16 years or so working for companies like NSP, General Electric and Ford.

These days the closest Sengsavang gets to using those mechanical skills is fixing his freezer or the sign outside, but he said his career as an engineer fits better than you might think with the life of a convenience store owner.

"That's how I gained my experience and people skills," said Sengsavang, who likes to quote business advice from sources as diverse as Steven Covey's book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and mega-church pastor Rick Warren. "If I can transform mechanical forms to customer service forms they're not that different at all.

"If something doesn't make sense, doesn't generate interest or the bottom line, move it."

Sengsavang is still in the process of trying different things around the store to find the best fit. Even things as small as the newspaper rack. He's moved the rack in his store five times already, and he's still not completely satisfied.

"I'm still gonna move it," he said. "You've gotta keep changing."

He's open to bigger changes, too. Sengsavang started selling fried chicken meals a few weeks ago, and when someone suggested he needed more variety on his menu his wife, Pone, started whipping up made-from scratch egg rolls -- they adjusted the recipe three times before deciding they were just right -- and spring rolls. The store also offers taquitos, and Sengsavang is looking for more ideas.

"We are listening to our customers," Sengsavang said. "That's what they want and that's what we're going to sell."

Sengsavang has added U-Haul rental to the store and he's looking for other additions. There's still some unused space in the store and he's considering options such as grocery or dollar store offerings. He'd also like to work with local farmers to provide a kind of miniature farmer's market in his parking lot. Growers would get free space and he would get the added traffic produce shoppers would bring in.

Whatever he does next, it seems clear Sengsavang is having fun.

"I have a positive personality," he said. "I'm seeing that this business is getting better every day."