CHICAGO — Labor has always been a hot topic in the convenience store industry. Over the past two years, most of the conversation has been around the shortage of available workers. However, retailers should be having another conversation around this question: How is the changing population impacting hiring and retention in the channel?
As a start, convenience retailers can benefit from getting to know the multicultural consumer, according to Dr. Edward T. Rincón, a research psychologist at the University of Texas Arlington School of Business.
He noted that expenditures for food away from home, which were steadily increasing since 1998, took a sharp nosedive in 2020 as fewer consumers visited restaurants and other food establishments. Conversely, expenditures for food at home increased, but this uptick did not affect all channels the same, Rincón explained during a recent diversity and inclusion webinar hosted by Convenience Store News.
Notably, grocery stores, warehouse clubs, supercenters and mail delivery saw increases while convenience stores saw a decrease, according to Rincón, suggesting that "convenience stores will have to accelerate their efforts to capture new customers into the future."
Other trends are also complicating the competitive landscape. As he pointed out, supermarkets are abandoning food deserts, which has opened the door for dollar stores in communities of color — though this is not necessarily good for those communities. Cities are beginning to adopt zoning restrictions against dollar stores, however. "These trends point to potential opportunities for convenience stores," he advised.
Investing in the Multicultural Consumer
The way Rincón sees it, the multicultural consumer is a good investment for c-stores.
In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau counted roughly 122 million multicultural consumers, or 37 percent of the U.S. population. This segment of the population included 62 million Latinos, approximately 40 million Blacks, and 20 million Asians.
Growth projections have the number of multicultural consumers increasing to 148 million by 2030, and to 208 million by 2060. "It is not a temporary blip like a shooting star," Rincón said.
As a result, multicultural consumers will drive the demand for products, services and programs in the future. This will also increase the need for a talented workforce that understands how to address the needs of multicultural consumers.
Despite their growing presence and significant economic assets, though, knowledge of multicultural consumers remains limited and can present a real barrier to customer relations, Rincón stated. "The last thing you want is to lose business because the staff was not comfortable serving Black, Latino or Asian customers," he cautioned.
The c-store industry needs a process for identifying problems before they occur — and this starts with recognizing the limitations of current hiring and training processes for jobs or tasks that call for significant contact with multicultural consumers, said Rincón.
An Uncomfortable Conversation
When it comes to diversity, many people are so scared of saying or doing the wrong thing that they don't talk about it at all, pointed out webinar co-presenter Jason Greer, founder and president of Greer Consulting, a labor management and employee relations consulting firm located in St. Louis.
Diversity, equity and inclusion has had its peaks and valleys in corporate America, but corporate America gets a bad rap about its commitment to diversity, Greer said.
"Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people who identified as chief diversity officers across industries expanded 107 percent," he noted.
Still, he has found that it is one thing for a company to say it embraces diversity and another to make diversity actually happen within the organization.
Following what he refers to as "the George Floyd moment" in 2020, there was an influx of ideas toward promoting diversity internally. "Companies really wanted to make sure their companies, internally, looked like the changing demographics of the country," he said.
Many companies expanded their avenues of access to employees and adopted inclusive recruiting, which led to a surge of diverse hires and promotion opportunities. Companies gave candidates the impression they were joining organizations that embrace diversity.
But, over the course of time, diverse employees' enthusiasm will trail off if an organization says externally that it supports diversity, but it is not prepared for diversity internally.
"Diversity itself is more of a mindset, but you can't get to that mindset until you really understand what diversity means for your organization," Greer said.
"Diversity is fun. Diversity can work. But diversity can only work if we do the hard work, which is listening to folks, learning from folks, and then creating the type of environment — an inclusive environment — that prizes people for what they bring to the table," he added.
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "Are You Prepared to Change with America’s Changing Population?," is available here.
Convenience Store News has launched an industrywide initiative to facilitate engagement among all stakeholders in the convenience channel around diversity and inclusion, with underwriting support from Altria Group Distribution Co., The Coca-Cola Co., The Hershey Co. and WorkJam. The platform is designed to be a catalyst for discussion, innovation, engagement and action.