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COFFEE & D'OHNUTS?

Denise Riccardo was struck first by the Kwik-E-Mart sign out front and the banner beneath it: "Thank you for loitering, please come again," it read.

Things were also unusual inside the convenience store: An oversized plastic cutout of beach-ball-bellied Homer Simpson greeted shoppers. Off-color signage, including one warning over the magazine rack that read, "This is not a library!" And the shelves, along with the usual merchandise, were laden with various strange, new products: Buzz Cola. Krusty O's cereal. Radioactive Man comic books.

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Riccardo couldn't help but approach one of the cashiers.

"What happened to the 7-Eleven?" the Riverdale resident asked. She discovered her popular morning pit stop in Bladensburg had been transformed inside and out to resemble the convenience store from the popular animated television series The Simpsons. Its conversion is part of 7-Eleven's promotion of 20th Century Fox's The Simpsons Movie, which arrives in theaters July 27.

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The Bladensburg locale was one of 12 7-Elevens - 11 in the U.S. and one in Canada - that will remain Kwik-E-Marts for the entire month, a testament to Simpson's creator Matt Groening, who designed Kwik-E-Mart, after - what else - 7-Eleven. The Bladensburg store was chosen because of its proximity to Washington and because it's one of the top-grossing 7-Eleven stores among about 90 in the area, said Joy Pico, a local field consultant for the chain.

The store underwent its transformation at midnight Sunday, taking a five-person crew six hours to complete. Most references to 7-Eleven have been tucked away; its forest green, orange and burnt-orange colors replaced by Kwik-E-Mart's sky blue, lime and red on store walls, roof, cash registers and ATM machines.

A running gag on The Simpsons, the fictional Kwik-E-Mart is known for unusually high prices and for its Indian-American owner, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon Jr. Most of the Kwik-E-Mart scenes revolve around the eccentric storekeeper, voiced by Hank Azaria and often a target of derision and ridicule by Homer Simpson. Prices at the 7-Eleven-turned-Kwik-E-Mart are more in line with convenience-store standards: A box of Krusty O's is $3.99, while Buzz Cola goes for 89 cents for a can, $2.89 for a six-pack.

"People were asking what was going on," said franchise owner Berhane Kebede of College Park. "A few customers were worried that 7-Eleven had went away. But I told them that 7-Eleven is not going anywhere."

The cashiers at the Bladensburg store have even abandoned their 7-Eleven uniforms for Kwik-E-Mart attire, while 7-Eleven officials on hand yesterday wore uniforms with name tags you'd likely see on the show - like "Mae B. Smelly." Meanwhile, the popular Slurpee drink dispenser has been changed into a multicolored Squishee machine.

"It's been the first opportunity we've had to bring Simpsons products to life," said Lisa Travieso, marketing manager of Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc. "The Burbank, [Calif.], stores sold out of all their Buzz and Krusty O's products on Sunday. We know that Simpsons fans are true fans.

"The target audience of the Simpsons customer and the 7-Eleven customer is perfectly aligned," said Travieso, referring to men ages 18 to 34.

After the monthlong promotion is over, 7-Eleven will donate the signage and items to charity, she said.

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Mike Kelsey of Bowie was on his way to work yesterday morning when his wife called to say she had heard about the Kwik-E-Mart conversion on the news. She asked him to stop by and pick up something for the kids.

He detoured from his commute to Washington and picked up three boxes of Krusty O's cereal, three Radioactive Man comic books and a six-pack of Buzz Cola for his two preteen daughters. The pack of gum, he said, was for himself.

Some of the items, like Radioactive Man comics, were readily available before the promotion. Pico, the 7-Eleven consultant, said the Krusty O's were made by Minnesota-based cereal maker Malt-O-Meal, and the Buzz Cola was made by Toronto-based soft-drink maker Cott. The items are being sold at 7-Eleven stores nationwide.

Many who visited the bustling store yesterday morning appeared more concerned with paying for their morning coffee or pastries quickly and dashing back to their cars to resume their commutes. As lines for the four cash registers wrapped halfway around the store, some customers stood staring nonplussed at the new items.

Pico said most patrons seemed to approve of the changes - to a point.

"One guy picked up a pot of coffee," she said, "and he said, 'As long as the 7-Eleven name is still on the pot, Ill take it.'"

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joseph.burris@baltsun.com



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