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11/27/2022

Convenience Stores at a Crossroads

The migration to electric vehicles means convenience stores must reinvent themselves.
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a Tesla charging

Historically high gas prices, new electric vehicle (EV) models, government sales incentives and the desire to become more sustainable are pushing more consumers toward EVs.

Some states, including California, are moving toward EVs to meet environmental goals, and plan to stop selling gas-powered vehicles altogether by 2035. Experts predict that the EV market will more than double by 2027, and that 45 percent of new car sales will be electric by 2035.

Since fuel revenue has historically been so significant for c-stores, the migration to EVs means convenience stores must reinvent themselves. This means transitioning from a grab-and-go model that's a 10-minute stop  where customers gas up their cars, then grab cigarettes, beer and a prepackaged snack for the road  to a destination, where they hang out for an hour or more to shop, eat, work and charge their cars. 

The threat is that casual dining, shopping malls, etc., may replace c-stores as the travelers' destinations. So, if your convenience store hasn't yet started thinking about your strategy for reinventing yourself, it's time.

C-stores need to make foodservice a meaningful part of their organizations and give their customers a reason to come and stay. Unfortunately, there are often negative perceptions around c-stores' food and grab-and-go model, so brands should work diligently to change these perceptions, emphasize safety and quality, and build consumer trust. I recommend that c-stores:

Change their mindset around food. Some c-store employees view food preparation as a burden, and may dread cooking, replenishing and monitoring prepared food. Also, some stores don't consider where their food comes from, how it's sourced, and whether their suppliers follow strict food safety procedures. That must change. C-stores must implement food safety and quality protocols, ensure integrity in food sourcing, track their suppliers' safety certifications and make food safety part of their company cultures.

Correct misconceptions. There are still misconceptions about c-store food, with consumers envisioning old, shriveled hot dogs being held under heat lamps for days. C-stores need to change the narrative and become famous for serving fresh, safe, delicious food. And since customers will need something to do while they charge their cars, add welcoming areas to sit, eat and wait.

Migrate or get left behind. Consumers are becoming healthier, with a decline in cigarette smoking and a shift away from buying soda and processed snacks. C-stores should transform accordingly, working to replace these revenue drivers. Offer delicious meals and snacks, and be sure to have healthier options (e.g., vegetarian meals, healthy juices, fruit and smoothies) for the notoriously health-conscious EV owners.

Embrace the EV trend. There are nearly 150,000 convenience stores nationwide, and approximately 80 percent of them currently sell gas. As more people adopt EVs, consider how consumers' needs will change and transform your business accordingly. Since EVs have a finite battery life, people will need to periodically charge their cars, so offering charging stations onsite is a great way to attract customers and differentiate yourself from other c-stores that don't do this.

Understand the changing competition. EVs have changed the landscape. Fast-casual restaurants, shopping centers, grocery stores, pharmacies and even car washes are adding charging centers and giving customers something to do  eat, shop, vacuum their car  while they wait. This means increased competition for c-stores. To attract the growing number of EV owners, create an environment where your customers would enjoy hanging out; a seating area with Wi-Fi where they can catch up on work, sip coffee and enjoy a leisurely meal.

Emulate European models. Quick-service restaurants don't have market presence in Europe, so for on-the-go meals and snacks, consumers rely on c-stores. European c-stores make fresh food the centerpiece. Meals are made to order, and they don't hold hot sandwiches under heat lamps. Consumers across the pond trust and enjoy c-store food in a way that's quite different from the United States.

Elevate inspections and audits. Use technology tools to conduct daily inspections, ensure foods are held at proper temps, check store cleanliness, etc. Ditch paper systems, which can't validate whether checks occurred, and rely on software for easily accessible inspection records. Hire third-party inspectors for external validation. These assessments will identify areas of noncompliance so that you can take immediate corrective actions.

Ensure all suppliers follow strict safety and quality protocols. In addition to implementing strict QA programs in your store, monitor your suppliers to be certain they have proper food safety protocols and structured QA programs in place. Use tech tools to organize and manage supplier certifications. Audit suppliers to ensure they're compliant before you work with them (and throughout your collaboration).

Play the long game. Consumer perception won't shift quickly. Your store must build trust over time. Have patience.

All signs indicate that EV sales will spike significantly in the coming months and years, changing what convenience stores will look and feel like. Instead of wanting grab-and-go experiences, more c-store customers will want to sit and wait as they charge their cars. This is an ideal opportunity to give your customers and prospects what they want  a reason to come and stay awhile.

CJ Pakeltis is an account manager at RizePoint, specializing in the grocery and convenience store markets. He has experience providing solutions and services to clients across many different industries. His top priority is helping business owners find the right technology to help them improve business processes. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News