Convenience stores have long been a staple of American retail, serving up snacks, drinks, quick-serve meals, and other convenience items – not to mention gas – for shoppers on the go. However, the evolving needs and preferences of consumers have driven c-stores to adapt and evolve to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive retail landscape.
According to Lori Stillman, VP of NACS, convenience stores in the US serve an incredible 165 million guests per day across 150,000 locations. This means that roughly half of the US population visits a convenience store each day. However, this retail channel landscape has changed significantly in recent years, and c-stores continue to evolve to meet the needs of their increasingly diverse customer base.
The bygone era of gas-station hot dogs
One of the most significant changes in the convenience store landscape has been the increasing demand for fresher, sometimes healthier options. As consumers become more health-conscious, and fresh, high-quality food becomes ever more within arm’s reach, operators have responded by offering a wider variety of fresh produce, organic products, and other fresh(er) choices. Some convenience stores are even partnering with local farmers and producers to source these items, providing consumers with healthier options while also supporting local businesses and promoting sustainability.
Another trend in convenience store shopping is the increasing demand for plant-based options and alternatives to traditional meat and dairy products. Convenience stores are responding by stocking more plant-based snacks, drinks, and even heat-at-home meal options, as consumers look for ways to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, and put fresher meals on the table in spite of busy schedules.
On-the-go means on-the-phone
Technology is also playing an increasingly important role in c-store shopping. Consumers today expect a seamless shopping experience that integrates with their smartphones and other devices. Convenience stores are responding by incorporating technology such as mobile payment options, digital coupons, and even mobile ordering and delivery.
One example of this is the 7NOW app from 7-Eleven, which allows customers to order products for delivery or pickup from their nearest store. The app also includes features such as personalized deals and promotions, as well as the ability to rate and review products. This type of technology not only provides consumers with a more seamless shopping experience but also allows c-store operators to gather valuable data on their customers’ shopping habits and preferences.
Very much a part of the omni-channel
Convenience stores are also investing in omni-channel opportunities, including digital shelf, delivery, and click-and-collect. By expanding their offerings and providing a more seamless shopping experience, convenience stores are meeting the evolving needs of their customers and staying relevant in an increasingly competitive retail landscape.
From the psychological perspective, one key driver of c-store visits is the sense of tribal belonging that consumers feel towards the channel and retailers. Referencing a unique, neuroscience-backed database, this sheds light on a deeper driver of c-store visits beyond the obvious of convenience and impulse cravings.
This sense of belonging is not limited to traditional convenience store shoppers, but also aligns with retailers like Target and broader grocery shopping behaviors. In short, many shoppers perceive that “people like me” agree that c-stores are a strong option (and recall the stat above that about half the U.S. population visits a c-store each day). Given that this psychology is shared across venerable retailers like Target and Kroger, clearly the c-store shopper is no niche.
The Starbucks effect on ESG
Convenience stores have also been responding to the growing demand for more sustainable and eco-friendly products. Some convenience stores are now stocking more sustainable products such as reusable straws, water bottles, and bags, as well as offering recycling programs for certain products.
In addition to these changes, c-store operators have also been evolving to serve a more diverse customer base. In the past, convenience stores were often perceived as serving the needs of male shoppers, typically referred to as “Bubbas.” However, this perception has changed significantly, and channel continues to evolve to serve a much more diverse customer base. In particular, women and moms have become a growing cohort of convenience store shoppers.
These ubiquitous outlets serve as a vital source of food for many people, particularly those in food deserts or low-income areas. As traditional grocery stores have become less prevalent in some areas, convenience stores have stepped in to fill the gap, offering a wider variety of fresh produce and other healthy options.
While the channel is rarely referenced in the otherwise deafening discussion of “the omni-channel,” convenience stores have been evolving rapidly in recent years, driven by changing consumer preferences and an increasingly competitive retail landscape. From fresher options and plant-based alternatives to technology and sustainability initiatives, convenience stores are staying relevant by meeting current shopper expectations – and in many cases, leading the way.
Hunter Thurman is president of Alpha-Diver, the market research & consulting firm that applies neuroscience to more deeply understand marketplace behavior. The firm’s neuroscientists and strategists work with leading brands, retailers and the Wall Street analyst community to explain consumer behavior in ways proven to help clients drive double-digit brand growth via activation.