Despite the growth that the convenience business has seen over the past few years, one factor has remained stubbornly unchanged: Convenience stores are still seen by many as a male-focused channel. And that makes itself felt at the cash register.
According to The NPD Group, 55 percent of food and beverage servings in c-stores are to men, 45 percent to women. In absolute numbers, more women are coming into the store — but that’s because the channel’s been growing and attracting more customers overall. As a percentage of business, however, women have been in the minority for years.
It’s a topic so important to the industry that my colleague Michelle DeLamielleure and I presented at the 2014 NACS Show to share some of our research findings on the subject. In this article, I’ll summarize the key insights.
Women Have Higher Expectations Than Men
In our research, we’ve seen that women generally have higher expectations of the retail experience than men. They put more emphasis on factors like cleanliness, safety, convenience, service and price. Across the store, they simply expect retailers to live up to a higher standard. So, appealing to women is not just about tweaking assortment; it’s about upgrading the entire experience.
What About Alienating the Male Shopper?
If a c-store delivers an experience that appeals to women, will it alienate that core male shopper? Nope. Men think the same factors are important, too. They just don’t rate their importance as highly as women do.
Let me give you an example. In a recent General Mills study of c-store shoppers, 51 percent of women said clean restrooms are “extremely important” to them. Among men, the percentage was 38 percent. Yes, there is a difference. But think about it for a moment. Roughly five in 10 women expect a clean restroom, compared to four in 10 men. The difference is not that great. Men think clean restrooms are important as well. Appealing to women does not mean alienating men.
The Six Factors Women View Differently
As we looked across our research, we realized there are six key areas in the store that women tend to view differently than men, and they’re easy to remember. Just think of the first six letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E and F.
Here’s what those letters stand for:
A: Appetizing treats
B: Better for you
D: Deals and prices
F: Freshness in food
Back in 2011, we surveyed several thousand people about their purchases of food in c-stores. We wanted to uncover the need states that were motivating them. One of the need states we uncovered revolved around sweet treats: things like candy, cookies and dessert-type items.
These were often impulsive buys, purchased by shoppers as a little reward for themselves. Shoppers in this need state were more likely to visit the store in the afternoon, and they were more likely to buy other “vices” like alcohol and tobacco.
Here’s the interesting part: Women were more likely to be in this appetizing-treat mindset than men. I’m not saying that men don’t buy candy bars. Obviously, they do. But the data showed that women were a bit more likely to indulge in a sweet reward than men.
Appealing to the appetizing treat shopper entails the following:
- Don’t make them wait. Since treat buying is often impulsive, messaging like “You deserve it” or “Ready in seconds” (for fresh foodservice items) should appeal to that immediate gratification mindset.
- Offer afternoon treat specials. Treat-seeking happened more frequently in the afternoon. Promos on indulgent items that are only valid in the afternoon can capitalize on this behavior.
- Do strategic cross-promotion. Cross-promote with other indulgent food, beverage or non-food categories to increase overall basket size.
BETTER FOR YOU
Women are more concerned with better-for-you items than men. In 2013, we surveyed 1,600 c-store shoppers about their attitudes toward better-for-you products in c-stores. Overall, women expressed a greater desire for better-for-you items than men.
Specifically, 31 percent of women agreed that “I wish convenience stores offered more healthy food options” (compared to 23 percent of men); 22 percent of women said they would visit c-stores more often if they carried more better-for-you options (compared to 17 percent of men); and 20 percent of women said they “sometimes feel guilty” about the food they buy in c-stores (compared to 15 percent of men).
Wait a second. Doesn’t this contradict what we just said about appetizing treats? I don’t think so. I think women achieve a greater balance between an occasional indulgence and the overall desire to eat better than men. For women, it really depends on the situation.
Both male and female c-store shoppers have a fairly mainstream definition of better for you. Fresh foods, as well as foods that have reduced fat, sugar or calories, have the broadest appeal.
They also look for foods that contain protein, whole grains or fiber. Trendy definitions, like vegan or gluten-free, tend to appeal to a much smaller group of shoppers.
No matter what better-for-you items you offer, don’t forget that taste still drives food choice. Women (and men) are not going to eat something they don’t like, no matter how beneficial it is.
Appealing to better-for-you shoppers entails the following:
- Lead with taste. In your messaging, show and tell shoppers how great your products taste, then mention the benefits.
- Go mainstream, not extreme. Products with reduced fat, calories or sugar, as well as products that contain protein, fiber or whole grains have the widest appeal.
- Focus on basket builders. Every store has at least some better-for-you items, though shoppers might not trek around the store to find them. Make it easy by bundling. Fruit, water, snack bars and yogurt are all great candidates for better-for-you bundles.
When we asked c-store shoppers if offering kid-friendly food or beverages would make them more likely to visit, the answer was no — except for one group. Women aged 18 to 34 were more likely to say that kid-friendly items would encourage c-store visits.
That should not be surprising since this is a demographic with young kids. And when you can’t leave your kids at home, your only choice is to take them along, even on quick shopping trips. As women get older, their interest in kid-friendly items evaporated. Women aged 35-plus were no more likely than men to want kid-friendly items.
Appealing to moms entails the following:
- Smaller portions, smaller prices. Take inspiration from quick-service restaurants with their kid-sized meals.
- Offer foods mom can feel good about. Look for items that combine nutritional benefits with a bit of fun for the child.
- Create an appealing environment. A sense of safety and cleanliness is vital to entice women to bring their kids inside the store.
DEALS & PRICES
In our research, shoppers often highlight price as a concern. With women, that concern is even more acute. For example, low gas prices were cited by 59 percent of women as “extremely important” in visiting a c-store, vs. 38 percent of men. Also, prices similar to other retailers is “extremely important” to 45 percent of women vs. 34 percent of men; and offering coupons and deals is “extremely important” to 31 percent of women vs. 18 percent of men.
Women are price sensitive because they are often the primary grocery shopper for their households. They keep the family on budget. That means they are more aware of the price of things, and more likely to raise an eyebrow at high prices.
Appealing to price-conscious women entails the following:
- Deliver value, not just bargains. Value can come about in different ways. For example, a deal on graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate can be positioned as “s’mores fixings,” delivering value not just through the price, but by giving moms a fun treat for their families.
- Offer deals on female-friendly items. Deals on items with specific appeal to women (remember the appetizing treats and better-for-you items we talked about) may change the overall perception of the store’s pricing.
- Focus on signage. Women are more likely to make gas-only trips than men. So, when it comes to pump and outdoor signage, think about how the products, art design and messaging could be designed to appeal specifically to women.
For both men and women, the No. 1 driver of c-store choice is location. Beyond that, women place more emphasis on a variety of store experience-related factors than men. We already talked about how cleanliness, safety, speed and customer service matter to women. But there’s more to it than that. There’s that c-store “guy vibe.”
Whether it’s adult magazines, gag gifts or sexist bumper stickers, certain items create an image that can dissuade female shoppers. As a respondent in one of our surveys said: “When I think of convenience stores, I think of beef jerky, beer, lottery tickets. Nothing woman-oriented.”
The effect of the “guy vibe” is tough to quantify, but I think the effect is clear.
Delivering a female-friendly experience entails the following:
- Clear visibility, inside and out. Ensure the store and the forecourt are well-lit, with clear sightlines inside and outside the store. Lots of parking and easy access from the street are also important.
- Stress-free shopping. Aisles should be clutter-free with wide, clean spaces and easy-to-navigate shelf sets.
- Evaluate your assortment. What does your assortment say about you? If it conveys a “guy vibe,” you may inadvertently be dissuading female shoppers.
FRESHNESS IN FOOD
Freshness in food is fundamental to female shoppers. In fact, freshness is so important that it ranks right up there with location, cleanliness and safety as a key factor in visiting a c-store for women.
At its most basic level, freshness is simple. Packaged food can’t be out of date or damaged (62 percent of women agree with that, compared to 50 percent of men), and prepared foods cannot be stale or soggy (53 percent of women concur, compared to 44 percent of men).
Beyond those basics, however, shoppers recognize freshness through the ingredients in their food (real and recognizable is better), how it was prepared (in front of me is better), and how long it’s been sitting out (ideally, just minutes after it was made).
Conveying freshness entails the following:
- Appetizing photography. There’s a reason that cookbooks devote so much space to photos. It’s because we eat with our eyes first. Appetizing photography on posters and signage can convey freshness and quality in a way that words can’t.
- Theater of food prep. If you’ve got a custom-made, fresh food operation in your store, you should get credit for it. Open kitchens and displays of ingredients let shoppers know your foods are as fresh as possible.
- Critical condiments. If you have a traditional roller grill program, you can still get credit for freshness through a well-tended condiment bar. Fresh ingredients in a clean layout can do it without the overhead of a full kitchen.
There you have it, the six factors that women see differently than men. Interestingly, if we look at these in order of priority — the ones that retailers should tackle first — the order is almost exactly reversed. Take a look at the data table (page 98) and you’ll see that the factors at the bottom of my alphabetical list are actually rated at the top in overall importance.
Experience factors (cleanliness, safety, speed) are the most critical, followed by freshness in food, then price-related factors. Further down the list (not shown on the table) are the availability of sweet treats, then better-for-you items. And child-friendly brings up the rear.
I believe the male-focused image of c-stores is changing. As I talk to retailers across the country and look at the latest generation of stores, many of these factors are already being addressed. That’s a great thing to see. Attracting more women means attracting new customers and new revenue, and that is a worthy goal indeed.