Bring Your ‘A’ Game

Convenience store shoppers want lower prices, cleaner aisles, friendlier service, better-quality coffee and rewarding loyalty programs from the c-stores they frequent.

Verbatim comments like these were frequently cited by the c-store shoppers polled in Convenience Store News’ 2016 Realities of the Aisle consumer research study:

“What would make me go more often? Lower prices on gas, cigarettes, energy drinks, good customer service and a reward program with discounts.”

“I’d shop more often if the stores were cleaner. Also, if they had a reward program that takes cents off gas and other items.”

“I would definitely go there more often if the coffee was better.”

In short, consumers say they would visit a convenience store more often if the shopping experience was better.

While c-store trips for prepared foods increased significantly year over year, overall visits to convenience stores are slightly down, according to this year’s study, which marks the seventh annual CSNews Realities report. This finding should be especially concerning to c-store operators since the lower gasoline prices of late don’t seem to be luring a greater number of fuel purchasers into the store. The percentage of consumers who say they stop at a c-store to fill their tank and then buy something inside the store is flat this year compared to 2015.

About 33 percent of shoppers surveyed said they “always” or “almost always” buy merchandise in the store when they stop for gas, almost the identical percentage as last year.

Lower gas prices, however, are having an impact on the frequency in which lower-income consumers combine gas and in-store shopping. Nearly three out of 10 c-store shoppers with household incomes under $35,000 per year said they buy in-store merchandise at the same time they purchase gas. That’s a nearly 5-percentage-point increase from a year ago.

This phenomenon is repeated regionally and by age. Shoppers in the Midwest increased their frequency of in-store purchases by almost 5 percentage points, and shoppers aged 45–54 saw an increase of 6 percentage points in in-store shopping frequency when buying gas.


Overall visits to convenience stores are slightly down this year, with 72 percent of surveyed shoppers saying they visit a c-store daily or weekly. This is a bit below last year’s 73.9 percent.

Shopping for snacks and beverages are the most frequent reasons for in-store visits. Among consumers who visited a c-store in the past month, 55 percent said they shopped for packaged beverages (an increase from 39 percent last year), 54.3 percent shopped for snacks (about the same as the 55 percent last year), 43.8 percent shopped for cold or frozen fountain drinks (up from 41 percent), 39.9 percent shopped for candy/gum (holding steady from the 40 percent a year ago), and 39 percent shopped for hot beverages (up from 35 percent last year).


A strong 43.7 percent of consumers said they’ve recently shopped a c-store for prepared foods or fast food for immediate consumption. That’s a significant increase from 37 percent who said they went to a c-store for prepared foods last year.

Despite the increase, many consumers still think c-stores have to up their game in the foodservice category. “I’d like to see better-quality fast food for a reasonable price, or at least better-quality coffee drinks,” said one respondent whose comment echoed many others.

Other comment themes were requests for more healthy food items, better meals for on the go, a greater variety of Asian food, and a few requests for a drive-thru window.

This year’s findings also show that even more than last year, c-store shoppers are visiting the stores while on the go. Sixty-two percent of c-store customers this year said they typically shop at a c-store while running other errands (up from 55 percent a year ago) and 61 percent do so while traveling to or from work or school (also up from 55 percent last year).

Fifty-eight percent said they typically shop at a c-store while traveling for pleasure, while 43 percent said they make special trips to the store from home (down from 45 percent last year).


The largest percentage of shopper visits to a c-store occur between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. (indicated by 66 percent of those surveyed), followed by the morning hours of 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. (54 percent). Men comprise the majority of shoppers during these two most heavily trafficked time periods. Women outnumber men in the 11 a.m.-to-4 p.m. timeframe.

Traffic at convenience stores is lightest from 7 p.m. onward (39 percent of visits), with men outnumbering women shoppers during the late-night hours.


Word-of-mouth is still the most often cited element that’s influenced a consumer’s decision to visit a convenience store. However, mobile apps made an impressive showing this year.

Almost 16 percent of shoppers cited word-of-mouth as influencing their shopping decision, up slightly from 15 percent a year ago. Mobile apps, hardly mentioned a year ago, ranked third after coupons, with about 11 percent of respondents citing a retailer’s app as an influencer.


A solid 55 percent of customers use one or more of a dozen or so services offered by a typical c-store. The most widely used service is an ATM, with 37 percent saying they use the ATM machine at c-stores (up slightly from 35 percent a year ago).

This was followed by car wash (19 percent, up 1 percentage point); DVD rental (11 percent, down 1 point); money orders (10 percent, up 2 points); Internet/Wi-Fi access (7 percent, up 1 point); and check cashing (5 percent, down 1 percentage point).

Women are the heaviest users of ATM, DVD rental and money orders, outnumbering men 40 percent to 34 percent, 13 percent to 9 percent, and 12 percent to 8 percent, respectively.


“Loyalty rewards would influence my decision to visit a store more often,” said more than one respondent in this year’s CSNews Realities research.

The percentage of consumers enrolled in a c-store’s loyalty program increased significantly in the past year. Almost a third of shoppers said they are enrolled in their favorite c-store’s loyalty or frequent shopper program, compared to just one in four last year.

Another third said they would enroll if their c-store had a program. About 15 percent acknowledged they are aware their c-store has a program, but they haven’t signed up for it.


About half of the transactions at convenience stores are $9 or less (28.1 percent of surveyed shoppers said they spend between $5 and $9 per visit; 21.8 percent spend less than $5). Last year, only 43 percent of transactions were $9 or less.

Another 16 percent of consumers polled this year said they spend between $10 and $16 with each c-store visit. Last year, 19 percent spent this amount.

Four out of 10 shoppers pay for their in-store purchases with cash. That’s down from 47 percent a year ago. Meanwhile, 32 percent use a debit card (up from 28 percent) and 22 percent use a credit card (up slightly from 21 percent last year).

Women are more likely to use a debit card than men (a difference of 10 percentage points).

Motor Fuels

“Consistently low gas prices are most important to me,” remarked one consumer who participated in this year’s CSNews Realities of the Aisle study. Thanks to the favorable fuel environment, convenience stores have been able to deliver on this desire over the past year, and thus have gained more fuel customers year over year. The findings of our research show 86.8 percent of shoppers surveyed purchased fuel at a c-store in the past month, a robust 7.7-percentage-point gain compared to 2015.

Those with children were much more likely than those without children to purchase gas at a c-store in the last month (92.1 percent vs. 82.9 percent, respectively). Low gas prices are surely opening up more opportunities for family road trips.

Looking at c-store fuel purchasing by income, it is strong across all income levels except one. Only 77.8 percent of those with incomes of $35,000 or less said they made a c-store fuel purchase in the past month. However, among all other income levels, at least 89 percent of respondents in each bracket indicated they made such a purchase.

One in every four shoppers surveyed said they purchase fuel exclusively at a convenience store. For the three-quarters that also buy elsewhere, the highest percentage visit gas-only locations, followed by supercenter/mass merchandisers, wholesale clubs, supermarkets and truck stop plazas.

Interestingly, in most cases, the percentage of consumers visiting each of these non-c-store locations for fuel rises in ascending order as income level rises. For example, 40 percent of those earning $35,000 or less visited gas-only locations in the past month, compared to 46.4 percent of those in the $35,000– $49,999 income group, 52.4 percent in the $50,000– $74,999 group; 55.2 percent in the $75,000–$99,999 group, and 56.5 percent in the $100,000-plus group.

Despite c-stores gaining more fuel customers year over year, this is not translating into more in-store visits. Among those who purchased c-store fuel, a majority (55.1 percent) said no promotional marketing tool influenced them to make an in-store purchase. On the positive side, though, this figure is down from 56.7 percent who answered the same way last year.

Among those who were influenced, loyalty programs proved the most impactful — one-sixth of consumers (16.7 percent) said this marketing method influenced their decision to purchase in-store products, compared to just 13.8 percent last year. Banners/window signs are becoming more effective as well, with 15.3 percent of those surveyed saying these promotional vehicles influenced them to go inside the store, vs. 12.7 percent last year.

When asked specifically about promotional messages at the pump, 44.9 percent of respondents said they were influenced to go in-store, a 1.6-percentage-point increase compared to 2015.


Some may call consumers fickle, but not when it comes to their cigarettes. According to CSNews’ 2016 Realities of the Aisle study, 53.8 percent of c-store cigarette buyers purchase the same brand every time. This number is down from last year, but still represents the majority. Brand loyalty is especially strong with younger adult smokers, with 79.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds pointing to brand loyalty as a key factor when buying cigarettes at a c-store. On the other end of the spectrum, consumers aged 45 and older place a greater emphasis on convenience and location when making a cigarette purchase.

Loyalty aside, consumers overall take cost into consideration. Specifically, 45.6 percent of surveyed shoppers said they were influenced by a good price/ value when buying cigarettes at a convenience store. On top of that, nearly 19 percent were impacted by a special promotion.

Cigarettes remain a key traffic driver for the convenience channel. Roughly one-third of total respondents in this year’s study indicated their most recent c-store visit was to buy cigarettes.

Consumers, however, frequent c-stores for all their tobacco needs, albeit at a lesser rate than for cigarettes — 7.3 percent said they go to c-stores for cigars/ snuff/chewing tobacco and 4.9 percent go for electronic cigarettes and vapor products. This disparity could be an indicator that current products available at c-stores are not meeting consumers’ satisfaction.

Those who purchase cigarettes at convenience stores do so frequently, maintaining the category’s status as big business for the channel. In fact, one-quarter of these shoppers say they buy cigarettes at a convenience store 15 times or more a month. This number jumps up to 30 percent among 35- to 44-year-olds.

It comes as no surprise then that those visiting the most are spending the most. Approximately 30 percent of c-store cigarette purchasers spent $100 or more in the past month. The majority of these consumers earn less than $50,000 a year. Lower gas prices are likely playing a role in spending as consumers find more disposable dollars in their pockets.

While c-stores are still the go-to place to buy cigarettes, other retail channels are ringing up their fair share. Tobacco stores, supermarkets and supercenters rank as the top three competitors.

It’s interesting to note that even though males generally buy more cigarettes than females, the gender stats run fairly even in regards to the other channels where they purchase cigarettes. The exception is supercenters and mass merchandisers — 8.6 percent of males compared to 3.8 percent of females pick up their smokes at places like Walmart and Target.


Convenience stores that have invested in their foodservice programs are seeing positive results in the form of repeat customers. Marking an improvement from one year ago, 60.8 percent of shoppers surveyed for the 2016 Realities study said they bought prepared food at a c-store at least once in the past month. Most of these consumers made repeat purchases.

A quarter of those who bought c-store prepared food did so twice in a month, while nearly half did so four times or more. The average number of purchases in one month was 4.78.

Hungry consumers aren’t only looking for a cheap meal when they go to c-stores. When study participants were asked to name the attributes most important to them when buying prepared food at a c-store, price/value was the No. 2 attribute mentioned (cited by 71.2 percent). Food quality (76.6 percent) was No. 1, and taste (65.6 percent) rounded out the top three.

C-store customers are also willing to put their money where their mouths are, with 17.6 percent saying they spent between $25 and $49 on c-store prepared food in the last month (this was the most-cited spending range). The average amount spent in a month was $40.44. Still, some customers are considerably more frugal; 17.2 percent said they spent only $5 to $9.

Lunchtime is the busiest time for c-store foodservice purchases, with 23.8 percent of surveyed shoppers making a purchase from 11 a.m. to 1:59 p.m. Interestingly, for all the talk of c-stores missing the dinner mark, the 4 p.m.–6:59 p.m. daypart ranked second at 22.6 percent.

While only 5 percent bought prepared food after 10 p.m., this is double the 2.4 percent who said the same last year, indicating that late night may be worth keeping an eye on.

Hot dogs, deli/sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches and pizza remain the most popular prepared foods purchased at c-stores. The number of customers who said they bought deli/sandwiches increased by 4.6 percentage points from one year ago.

Reflecting the busy lifestyle of consumers today, 45.3 percent said they ate their last c-store prepared food purchase inside the car, followed by 33.3 percent who took it home to eat. This preference for food that’s easy to eat on the go and portable is also reflected in c-stores’ primary foodservice competitor — two-thirds of consumers said they would most likely have purchased food at a fast-food restaurant had they not gone to the c-store.

Cold Vault

There’s no denying the cold vault is a top destination for convenience store shoppers. “To buy beverages” is second only to buying motor fuel as the reason customers come to a c-store.

According to the 2016 Realities of the Aisle study, female c-store shoppers are more likely to purchase a packaged beverage (59.4 percent) or a fountain/frozen beverage (51.4 percent) vs. their male counterparts (51.9 percent and 38.4 percent, respectively). Females are also more likely than males to purchase a c-store hot beverage (41.9 percent vs. 36.9 percent).

Age also is a factor. Young millennials aged 18–24 lead all age groups in c-store packaged beverage purchases (66 percent), while those aged 25–34 and 35–44 are just about neck-in-neck in second place (57.1 percent and 57.6 percent, respectively).

The majority of c-store shoppers who purchase packaged beverages do so multiple times a month. Only 13.6 percent of those surveyed make this purchase just once a month. Rather, 19.3 percent say they make two purchases a month and 21.7 percent make five to nine purchases.

When it comes to what types of packaged beverages c-store shoppers are purchasing, canned/ bottled soda reigns supreme at 53.3 percent, followed by bottled water at 40.2 percent. Sports drinks are also popular at 25.9 percent, while energy drinks (23.6 percent) and 100-percent fruit juice (23.7 percent) lag slightly behind. While all the aforementioned segments saw increases in purchasing during the last year, bottled/canned iced tea experienced a slight decrease at 19.3 percent this year compared to 19.7 percent one year ago.

Despite the high number of packaged beverage purchases, only 23.5 percent of surveyed shoppers said they spent $5 to $9 in a month, less than last year’s 24.1 percent. And those spending less than $5 per month increased from 19.7 percent to 23.9 percent.

When it comes to beer and malt beverage purchases, 16.3 percent of those surveyed spent $10 to $14 at a c-store in the past month, while only 3.3 percent spent less than $5.

If not buying their beer/malt beverages at a c-store, more female shoppers than men (54.2 percent vs. 41.4 percent) will purchase these products at a supermarket.

C-store shoppers overall also turn to supermarkets to make packaged beverage purchases (65.8 percent). Unlike with beer/malt beverages, however, male shoppers are more likely than their female counterparts to purchase packaged beverages at supermarkets.

A third of shoppers surveyed cited being “extremely” satisfied with their most recent c-store packaged beverage purchase (38.6 percent) and c-store beer/malt beverage purchase (36.3 percent). Interestingly, millennials aged 18–24 were the most satisfied of all age groups in the packaged beverages category (47.5 percent), but they were less satisfied in the beer/malt beverages category (30 percent).


Nearly everyone has a sweet tooth, whether or not they give in to it regularly. That’s what the data shows regarding candy purchases at convenience stores, which are made by a majority of the young and old, the rich and poor, and residents of every region in the United States.

Approximately 66 percent of the consumers surveyed for this year’s study reported they bought candy or gum from a c-store within the last month, a slight increase over one year ago. Women are heavier candy purchasers than men at 72 percent vs. 61.6 percent, respectively.

The presence of children in the household has a noticeable effect on the likelihood of c-store candy purchases, as 79.4 percent of those with children said they bought candy or gum in the last month, while only 55.8 percent of those without children did.

Younger adult consumers are the most likely of all the age groups to buy candy, with 76.4 percent of those aged 18–24 and 76.7 percent of those aged 25–34 having done so in the past month. Meanwhile, income level and geographic placement do not appear to strongly affect c-store candy purchases, although those living in the West and those earning $75,000 to $99,999 each year are the most likely to indulge themselves.

Consumers’ average frequency of purchase shows that candy remains a regular but not excessive indulgence for most. A quarter of consumers reported buying candy or gum at a c-store twice in the last month, while 18.6 percent made a single purchase and 17.3 percent made three. Still, it is not extremely uncommon for shoppers to make more frequent candy purchases: 16.9 percent reported doing so five to nine times in a month, and 12.6 percent made four purchases.

Along with being a regular but not excessive indulgence, candy is also an affordable indulgence for many shoppers. Overall, 36.7 percent of those surveyed said they spent less than $5 on candy or gum at c-stores in the last month and 26.2 percent spent $5 to $9.

C-stores are a top destination for candy, as 39.9 percent of consumers list buying candy/gum as a reason to visit. In addition, 39.8 percent listed candy/gum as something they purchased alongside prepared food in the last month.

When asked where else they purchase candy or gum in an average month, 57 percent said supercenters or mass merchandisers such as Walmart or Target; 55.2 percent cited the supermarket; 34.2 percent said a drugstore; and 33.5 percent said a dollar store.


When it comes to buying snacks at convenience stores, children may be calling the shots.

While 44 percent of the overall consumers surveyed for CSNews’ 2016 Realities of the Aisle study purchased a packaged salty snack at a c-store in the past month, the number jumps even higher among shoppers with children (49.1 percent for those with vs. 41 percent for those without). In addition, 43.8 percent of shoppers with children purchased a c-store packaged sweet snack in the past month, significantly more than the 28.6 percent for households without kids.

Snacking also appears to be more popular with female c-store shoppers. This year’s findings show women are more likely to buy every type of snack. For instance, 50.6 percent of female c-store shoppers buy packaged salty snacks vs. 40.1 percent of men. And the numbers for packaged sweet snacks tell a similar story: 41.2 percent of women vs. 30.8 percent of men are likely to pick up such items. The gender gap narrows for meat snacks and energy/ nutrition bars.

Whatever the snack, the majority of consumers are looking to the convenience channel to find the offering. Nearly 55 percent of surveyed shoppers said they typically shop at a c-store “to buy snacks” — only motor-fuel purchasing and buying beverages were cited more.

The research also highlights that younger consumers are key to the success of c-store snacks. Approximately 70 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed said they pick up snacks at a convenience store. This figure far outpaces the 42.4 percent of consumers aged 55 and older who said they typically go to a c-store for snacks.

Three-quarters of females say price is “extremely important” when deciding where to purchase motor fuel, compared to slightly more than two-thirds of men who said the same.

While only 7.1 percent of consumers cite convenience as a factor when buying cigarettes at a c-store, the number doubles for those aged 45 and older.

Made-to-order is the most preferred type of prepared food among current c-store foodservice buyers (cited by 41.9 percent). However, retailers should not overlook prepackaged/grab-and-go fare (cited by 39.5 percent). Many customers will buy both types.

While consumers are loyal to the convenience channel for their beer/malt beverage purchases, when asked what can be improved, they most often cited a better selection, carrying their preferred brand and lower prices.

When shopping at convenience stores, women are heavier candy purchasers than men at 72 percent vs. 61.6 percent, respectively.

C-store shoppers are looking for that extra treat to complete their meals. Of those who purchased prepared food in the past month, 36.8 percent also purchased packaged salty snacks and 27.8 percent purchased packaged sweet snacks as a complementary item.

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