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Top Franchise Leaders: Sarah Casalan Bittle, President of The UPS Store

The executive with the No. 2 brand on Entrepreneur’s list explains what the company has done to leverage success.

By Katie Porter1851 Franchise Contributor
Updated 10:10AM 12/07/22

The UPS Store has long been a dominating force in the franchising world. The 5,300-plus-unit packing, shipping, printing and postal company began franchising 40 years ago under the name Mail Boxes Etc. and rebranded as the franchise of United Parcel Service in 2001. 

In the years since, The UPS Store has been highly regarded in the industry as a leader. The brand placed No.2 on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 list this year, appeared in the top 10 for the last six years, and has been the top franchise in its category 32 years in a row. Recently, the franchise has also had high rankings on The Franchise Direct Top 100Franchise Times’ Top 400 and the Top 50 Brands by Number of Multi-Unit Franchisees by

Last year, The UPS Store announced that executive Sarah Casalan Bittle was assuming the role of president. Bittle has an extensive background in retail and merchandising operations and most recently was with Crate & Barrel home decor franchise. 

Bittle spoke with 1851 Franchise about how The UPS Store has remained a strong key player in the industry for nearly a half-century.    

1851 Franchise: What void does the brand fill? What was missing in the space before? How was it identified? 

Sarah Casalan Bittle: Small businesses cross almost every industry and combine to form the backbone of the U.S. economy, accounting for over 40% of U.S. economic activity. The UPS Store serves to empower these small businesses through supporting products and services that enable entrepreneurs to actualize their big ideas into success. 

There is no greater example of The UPS Store mission coming to life than during the onset of the pandemic in 2020. As offices closed and businesses were forced to adapt to new ways of working, The UPS Store was quickly identified as an essential business. This allowed franchises to serve small business owners and students looking for solutions to the newly created remote-working challenges.

But remaining open was just the first step. The next step was adapting to those new challenges. To better serve the increasingly flexible business world, The UPS Store redesigned its store format to a more open floor plan that can be customized based on local customer needs. The redesign also included the addition of new technologies, such as digital menu boards and smart lockers that allow for 24/7 package pickup. And as the popularity of e-commerce skyrocketed for retail businesses, The UPS Store added the functionality to be a one-stop-shop for product returns.

1851: What is The UPS Store doing well right now? What are the brand’s differentiators?

Bittle: There are three key elements that underscore the strength of our brand. First, our dedicated franchise owners play a big role in the success of our brand. Second, top U.S. retailers and small business owners have come to know The UPS Store as a household name for their business service needs. And third, we offer franchise opportunities backed by UPS, an internationally renowned logistics company whose “Customer First, People Led, and Innovation Driven” values make The UPS Store a formidable industry player.

Putting the customer — franchisees, small business owners, and consumers — at the heart of our organization gives us a competitive advantage. Our strong brand, combined with our personalized, customer-centric approach, attracts loyal customers and franchisees. The UPS Store is often top of mind for consumers in local communities because we have a deep understanding of their needs. In turn, this generates a loyal customer base for our franchise locations which our center owners find appealing as a franchise opportunity. The nature of a franchise business is that it is local – a local business serving local customers. Our center owners take pride in their work and are devoted to meeting the needs of their customers, making customer service a true brand differentiator at The UPS Store. In fact, customers are more than just customers. They become friends and refer their friends and fellow business owners as well.

One of the biggest strengths of The UPS Store is facilitating entrepreneurship and innovation among small business owners. How The UPS Store supports small businesses is a natural extension of our mission to provide solutions and world-class customer service. One recent way The UPS Store has driven innovation is by joining the metaverse. Together with Inc. Magazine and Fast Company, we have created the “Helping You Be Unstoppable Store” in Decentraland. “The Helping You Be Unstoppable Store” provides small business owners access to three floors of exclusive content, tips and advice to help them succeed in their entrepreneurial endeavors. The store is designed to empower small business owners by being an immersive and interactive place to learn by doing and even providing networking opportunities with other small business owners.

We’re also committed to equipping young, aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools and skills they need to fulfill their potential and vision as future business professionals. We’ve teamed up with Junior Achievement to support the next generation of entrepreneurs with our Start Small, Grow Big program by helping to fund educational programs for school-aged children focused on work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Through the program, The UPS Store made a $50,000 donation to Junior Achievement and is encouraging customers at more than 5,100 UPS Store locations across the U.S. to donate as well.

We have built an outstanding Corporate Retail Solutions team aimed at helping many brands solve their online returns process. These solutions, including our popular 360 Returns Program, are designed to foster long-term relationships between The UPS Store and corporate clients to facilitate this aspect of a customer journey — a pain point to many online retail brands. We make it easy for customers to come into our centers with an item to return to a wide variety of retailers and be quickly done with the return process and onto the next part of their days.

1851: What were some learning opportunities the brand leveraged to get where it is now?

Bittle: Persevering through the pandemic is the brightest example of a learning opportunity. The pandemic drove The UPS Store franchise owners closer to their communities and the people they serve. The UPS Store owners, as an entire network throughout the country, mobilized to support their communities and particularly small business owners who constitute the centers’ primary customer base. 

There were plenty of examples of this; from an Indiana center owner who designed, printed and offered free signs to the community expressing support to front-line healthcare workers to North Carolina center owners who offered free printing of takeout menus for a local restaurant and an Ohio center owner who offered free “We’re Open” signs for small businesses. Seeing our center owners build trusting, deeper relationships with local small business owners was a direct result of their ability to step up during this challenging time.

1851: What are some of The UPS Store’s most important milestones over the past five years? 

Bittle: The UPS Store achieved a few big milestones in recent years. The new design of The UPS Store in 2020 ushered in a new era for The UPS Store – defined by meeting small business needs increasingly based on tech and e-commerce. The new design was a part of a continued strategy to help The UPS Store franchisees thrive in a highly competitive environment.

Another key milestone was the creation of our Diversity Ownership program. Launched in 2020, the Diversity Ownership Program was designed to contribute to the growth of minority-owned businesses. The program offers 50% off the franchise fee to eligible first-time Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American and/or LGBTQ+ buyers.

Finally, there was the opening of the 5,000th retail location in 2021. Now in 2022, there are well over 5,100 locations nationwide and a store location within 10 miles of more than 84% of the US population. We also continue to grow our number of “non-traditional” The UPS Store locations (stores inside hotels, military bases, college campuses, grocery stores, etc.) to better reach a diverse range of customers. Additionally, many locations open on Sundays, providing convenient services to consumers seven days a week.

1851: What do The UPS Store’s ideal franchisees look like? 

Bittle: The UPS Store center owners are small business owners just like many of the customers they serve, so the ideal franchisee will have the traits to match. The typical franchisee is a motivated individual, passionate about customer service and a drive to be their own boss. They go above and beyond, thrive with interpersonal communication, and are committed to growing their toolbox of business skills.

Our retail network is filled with franchisees from a variety of backgrounds and with The UPS Store opportunities with the Diversity Ownership Program and Veteran Incentive Program, the franchisee pool is becoming more unique with each new store opening. Some of our franchisees are generational owners, some own multiple franchises and have been in business ownership for years, and others are just starting their journey into franchising. Each center owner brings a personalized mix of experience and skills to their store, creating a positive business environment for both their associates and their customers.

1851: How does the brand support franchisees?

Bittle: Joining The UPS Store franchise network grants access to multiple benefits. To start, The UPS Store offers all franchisees in-depth training to hone their skills so they are ready and confident to face any challenge that comes their way. The training includes a comprehensive online course in operational procedures and business acumen, along with in-person training at a certified The UPS Store training center to gain hands-on knowledge and in-store experience.

Outside of training, The UPS Store provides franchisees with ongoing counsel and 24/7 support from the dedicated franchise support team whenever they have questions, concerns or want to expand their store offerings. This also includes marketing and advertising support to help each franchisee grow their business. Finally, The UPS Store network is filled with other franchisees that can be tapped for support when needed. Purchasing a location of The UPS Store provides the opportunity to grow as a business owner with the support of the brand and peer-to-peer collaboration across the franchise network.

1851: What growth plans does The UPS Store have in the coming years?

Bittle: Under extraordinary circumstances — supply chain constraints, raw material shortages, inflation, staffing challenges and skyrocketing fuel prices — The UPS Store continues to grow from a healthy topline revenue perspective and in terms of total store count. Interest in our brand as a franchise opportunity remains strong. We’re optimistic about the future of The UPS Store and energized to keep innovating and helping our customers and franchise owners be unstoppable.

Exciting things are happening at The UPS Store as part of our Customer First strategy. Earlier this year, we launched a Go to Market Platform (GTMP) that provides a framework to test design features, programs, services and technology solutions before we roll them out to our network. This includes new technology, training, sales and customer service processes. The GTMP allows us to test hypotheses and most effectively deliver the best experience for franchisees and customers.

When it comes to Customer Experience, The UPS Store is in a leadership position. However, we’re always working on enhancing the customer experience to make it more seamless than ever. For example, we’ve been testing new technologies that enable our return customers to get in and out more quickly, saving them and The UPS Store associates valuable time.

Because the small business landscape is always changing, The UPS Store has made it a priority to conduct multiple and regularly-scheduled waves of research to stay closely aligned with our small business owner audience – both current and potential customers. This allows the company to continue to understand their most pressing needs and challenges and therefore enhance the critical services the stores provide to both entrepreneurs and general consumers.