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C-store Industry Fuel Sales Continue to Lag With COVID-19 Disrupting Commuting Patterns

a convenience store gas pump

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Working from home and remote learning trends have impacted retail fuel sales. The category also saw lower movement during the peak summer driving season.

According to NACS, nearly three in four retailers said fuel sales were down over the third quarter, which runs July through September. Furthermore, convenience store retailers are not optimistic that fuel sales will rebound quickly.

Specifically, a survey conducted by NACS Research found that 61 percent of c-store retailers expect fuel sales to be down the remainder of the year, and 20 percent expect fuels sale to "significantly decrease."

C-stores sell 80 percent of the fuel purchased in the United States.

Inside sales, on the other hand, are holding steady. In the survey, 58 percent of responders said that through the first nine months of 2020 inside sales were higher than the same period a year ago. In addition, 64 percent said in-store sales were up in September compared with last year.

According to NACS, COVID-19 continues to affect store operations as more convenience retailers embrace new ways to offer convenience during the pandemic. The research found that:

  • 21 percent have added curbside pickup;
  • 21 percent have added contactless payment;
  • 14 percent are focusing more on drive-thru; and
  • 14 percent have added delivery.

In addition, nearly half of all retailers  surveyed said they have reduced store operating hours, whether to provide deep cleaning or manage labor hours.

The coin shortage also affected store operations. According to the survey findings, 59 percent of retailers said by cash have fallen since March — in a channel where 40 percent of inside sales are by cash.

The coin shortage also affect c-store operations, according to 43 percent of respondents. In fact, 7 percent said it significantly affected operations to the point they had or still have periods where they did not allow customers to pay in cash or receive change in coins.

According to the survey, the convenience channel continues to support its communities through corporate donations. In addition:

  • 41 percent donate supplies to first responders;
  • 17 percent help with anti-human trafficking enforcement;
  • 14 percent have an employee volunteer program;
  • 10 percent participate in a school lunch-assist program; and
  • 7 percent match employee contributions to charity.

Looking ahead, retailers are focused on keeping employees and customers safe by diligently cleaning, staffing stores and developing new programs to offset the decrease in fuel sales. 

"As 2020 comes to a close, we have so many initiatives and changes currently in the works to better prepare us for a solid 2021," said Dennis McCartney, director of operations at Kennett Square, Pa.-based Landhope Farms.

"COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on inside sales this year, but it has also given us the opportunity to take a step back and realize where we need to concentrate our efforts in new product/program lines, as well as merchandising and promotional activity to drive traffic," he added, noting that the heightened cleaning processes will remain in place and become even more visible to customers as they enter and exit stores. "Our customers have been very vocal — thanking us for being so diligent and deliberate in our cleaning processes and it shows."  

The NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey was fielded in early October. A total of 72 member companies, representing a cumulative 1,672 stores, participated in the survey.

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