COVID-19's Continuing Impact on the Convenience Store Shopper

A new study suggests that c-stores face long-term threats in post-pandemic America.
Don Longo
Editorial Director Emeritus
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COVID shoppers

NATIONAL REPORT Despite signs that business is improving as the nation begins its return to pre-pandemic life, a new research study, The Future Of Now: Convenience/Quick Stop Shopping In A Post-COVID World, suggests that the convenience channel will be challenged for the foreseeable future as its core shoppers remain under economic and employment stress.

Citing pandemic-related structural changes to employment, the consequent impact on movement and long-term shifts in in-person schooling patterns, the study finds that c-store operators will need to consider the notion of "convenience" in a new context.

"Perhaps their locations will change. Perhaps they will adopt new delivery mechanisms based on their proximity to their shoppers. Whatever the outcomes, the c-store channel we had come to recognize is in for either a large dose of innovation or faces threats to its long-term relevance to the American shopper," the study states. 

Authored by Omnicom Commerce Group (OCG), the study is based on a poll of shoppers who made a verified purchase at a c-store between Sept. 25, 2020 and Oct. 5, 2020.

The study's core conclusions on c-store shopper behavior reveal a fundamentally different narrative than the typical retail story where at-home purchasing went up as shoppers with more disposable income spent freely on goods for their home.

"Convenience store shoppers were more economically disrupted," the study notes. They were "less able to work remotely and more uncertain about the future than typical shoppers and, in many cases, adjusted their purchase behavior accordingly."

Other key findings include:

• During COVID (as of March 2021), more than 40 percent of convenience store shoppers were on government assistance of some kind, up from 25 percent pre-COVID.

• In March 2021, more than half of all c-store shoppers with children did not anticipate their kids being back in school full-time in the fall, and that appears to be having a significant impact on these shoppers' ability to plan their own return to work/commuting. Fifteen percent c-store shoppers stopped traveling to work due to being newly unemployed, and only half of them anticipate traveling back to work by the fall of 2021.

• This reduction in travel is offset by shoppers anticipating using c-stores more almost twice as many c-store shoppers anticipate making more c-store trips six months from now than anticipate making less, with the net difference being almost 10 percent.

• The key to c-store spending is unplanned purchase almost half of all c-store shoppers (even during COVID) buy something they weren't intending to buy. So, the key to the recovery for c-stores and their brands is amplifying this unplanned purchase through understanding why shoppers are using the c-store more frequently than they had in the past, and aligning sales efforts accordingly.

• The c-store format depends upon regular shoppers even during the pandemic, almost half of c-store shoppers were there more than once a week. Shaking up habitual trip behavior is critical to generating unplanned purchase.

• Shoppers without children adjusted to lower c-store trip frequency during the pandemic by making products at home, like coffee, or using an online app/delivery service. C-store shoppers with children adapted by visiting other stores or by having friends/relatives deliver to them. C-store operators need to target their "win-back" energy against the right theft of their shopping trip by shopping cohort.

• The study showed a 16 percent increase in c-store shoppers making breakfast at home (a median of 2.8 days a week, as opposed to 2.4 pre-pandemic), with that behavior remaining steady from September to March. Breakfast food companies will want to make sure they lock in this new behavior as the world transitions back to "normal."

• Lunch behavior, for those still going to work, remains remarkably static. As restaurants largely remained open for pick-up/drive-thru service, lunchtime behavior outside the home did not change dramatically.

About the Author

Don Longo
Don Longo is Editorial Director Emeritus of Convenience Store News. Read More