7-Eleven & Wawa Stand Out as C-stores Have Their Moment
Placer.ai: Most of the chains' success is attributable to the retailers' ability to meet the needs of QSR diners.
NATIONAL REPORT — Gone are the days convenience stores are only frequented for smokes and cokes. Today, the c-store channel has evolved along with consumers' needs for food and treats, and have become a staple for many shoppers during times of economic restraints and uncertainty.
A new report from Placer.ai found that much of the success of 7-Eleven Inc. and Wawa Inc. is attributable to the c-store chains' ability to shift priorities and strategies in the face of rising prices and shifting post-COVID-19 work routines.
Here are the report's key takeaways:
Pennsylvania-based Wawa, one of Placer.ai's 10 Top Retail Brands to Watch in 2023, has a devoted fanbase and recently snatched the No. 12 ranking on Forbes' Halo 100, a list of the nation's most beloved brands across industries.
In the last few years, Wawa has experimented with a drive-thru format and enhanced its food offers to meet the demand of quick-service restaurant (QSR) diners.
Pivoting to a QSR format has served the chain well, according to Placer.ai, which reported store visits were up year over year from 2021 to 2022 almost every week of the fourth quarter. Additionally, from 2019 to 2022, foot traffic increased a whopping 81.3 percent.
"While some of the increase was undoubtedly fueled by the chain's continued expansion over the past few years, the average number of visits per venue also increased by 41.4 percent between Q4 2019 and Q4 2022 — indicating that the chain's expansion is meeting a ready demand," stated Lila Margalit of Placer.ai.
The chain boasts nearly 1,000 c-stores across six states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Florida, and Washington, D.C. Recent expansion plans call for stores to open in southern and coastal Georgia, the Florida Panhandle region and adjacent markets in southern Alabama, as well as Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.
A Growth Trajectory
7-Eleven has made inroads into the QSR space in recent years, namely with the emergence of its "Evolution Stores." These stores, which are customized to meet the needs of local communities, serve as testing grounds for new products, and feature restaurants and premium products like cigars, craft beers and wine cellars.
The Irving, Texas-based chain, which was recently named as one of America's most popular grocery stores by YouGov, has been on a growth trajectory. Despite a strong 2021 performance that makes for a tough year-over-year comparison, during most weeks since October 2022, visits to the c-store have outpaced pre-pandemic levels, according to Placer.ai.
"For a behemoth with such a vast geographical footprint, this overall level of visit growth is remarkable. And when zooming in on the six states which also boast a Wawa, the growth is more impressive still — with [year-over-three years] visits up between 3.9 percent and 17.5 percent throughout the entire period," said Margalit.
7-Eleven currently operates, franchises and/or licenses more than 77,000 stores in 15 countries and regions with the 7-Eleven trademark represented on more than 83,000 stores. The iconic brand, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2027, recently ventured in retail media with the introduction of Gulp Media Network in October 2022.
The "Slurpee Effect"
Zooming in on the six states which have both Wawa and 7-Eleven, Placer.ai compared the median household incomes (HHIs) of the chains' Q4 2022 true trade areas with statewide baselines. In all six states, the median HHI of the c-stores' trade areas was significantly lower than the statewide median — meaning that the two chains' target audiences tended to be less affluent.
At a time when inflation is leading many shoppers to tighten their purse strings and trade down, consumers with lower incomes may be particularly reluctant to splurge on eating out or even to make big grocery hauls. However, c-stores, which offer the full panoply of essential grocery items, low-cost prepared food snacks, are especially well-positioned to fulfill that need, the report stated.
As the traditional QSR sector continues to struggle to return to pre-pandemic visit levels, 7-Eleven and Wawa may be enjoying a "Slurpee effect" – the culinary equivalent of the "lipstick effect," where money-strapped consumers seek out low-cost discretionary items to splurge on.
An All-Day Affair
The expanding roles of c-stores like Wawa and 7-Eleven as one-stop places to shop, eat and indulge throughout the day appears to be reflected in hourly visitation patterns to the two chains, Placer.ai reported. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, foot traffic to both c-store chains peaked during the morning and afternoon.
While the majority of visits still occur early and midday, the past three years have seen a distinct shift toward evening and night visits:
In Q4 2019, 30.2 percent of Wawa visits took place between 6 a.m. and 11:59 a.m., and 33.4 percent took place between noon and 4:59 p.m.
In Q4 2022, foot traffic shares dropped to 26.3 percent and 30.6 percent, respectively. At the same time, the share of evening visits to Wawa increased from 27.4 percent to 30.7 percent. A similar, if less marked, trend can be observed for 7-Eleven.
Los Altos, Calif.-based Placer.ai tracks retail foot traffic and provides location analytics.