ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Convenience stores saw fuel sales and commuter traffic dip during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, a majority of retailers did see in-store sales grow.
According to the latest NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey, 59 percent of U.S. c-store owners reported an in-store sales increase, compared to 30 percent who reported a decrease.
Facing changes driven by the health crisis, c-store operators adjusted their product mix and focused more on take-home meals and grab-and-go meal solutions. Specifically, 49 percent put more emphasis on pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals, 41 percent focused more on prepared foodservice meals, and 24 percent focused more on ready-to-heat take-home meals.
Sales figures from the NACS CSX database confirm this post-pandemic sales trend. From April through November 2020, ready-to-eat and ready-to-eat meal options both saw double-digit increases compared to the same period in 2019. December data is not yet finalized, according to the association.
In addition to tweaks in its foodservice offerings, c-store retailers added or extended their offer around more in-demand products. Through its survey, NACS found that 39 percent of retailers focused more on cleaning/toiletry items and 34 percent focused more on grocery items.
Retailers also mixed it up in the cold vault as local restrictions limited on-premise alcohol consumption at bars and restaurants. Overall, 39 percent of stores put more emphasis on the alcoholic beverage category, with 58 percent adding new items.
New offers side, the channel did face some challenges. More than two in three respondents said it was difficult to find qualified candidates for jobs, 69 percent say that cleaning items/toiletries were in short supply, and 59 percent say that the coin circulation challenges experienced this summer affected their stores.
In addition, 48 percent said they experienced shortages of alcoholic beverages and 42 percent saw shortages of packaged beverages, NACS said.
"We exist in a small community, where the nearest gas and grocery is over 35 miles away. During the pandemic we were able to stay open and (mostly) stocked, and our community was infinitely appreciative of that," said Damon Goodmanson at Arivaca, Ariz.-based II Sonz LLC.
According to NACS, retailers plan to keep some changes they implemented in the past year. For example, 58 percent say they will emphasize prepared foodservice meals, 51 percent will focus more on prepared ready-to-eat meals like salads and sandwiches, and 30 percent will focus more on ready-to-heat meals.
Similarly, retailers will continue to expand convenient order and payment options:
- 38 percent will expand their app-based ordering and payments;
- 32 percent will expand mobile ordering for in-store pickup; and
- 14 percent will offer more ordering options at the pump for in-store pick-up.
However, survey respondents are heading into 2021 with some concerns. The survey found that 41 percent of retailers are more pessimistic about shopper foot traffic for the first quarter, compared to 24 percent who are optimistic.
That being said, retailers are increasingly optimistic about sales in each ensuing quarter. By Q4, retailers say they are more optimistic (67 percent) than pessimistic (6 percent) about how business will be performing, likely due to an expectation that larger portion of Americans will have received a COVID-19 vaccination by end of year.
In addition to sales, retailers say they will continue or expand their community giving in 2021. Overall, two-thirds said they will have programs to support local schools, 48 percent will support local first responders, 32 percent will focus on wellness programs for the community, and 27 percent will support hunger relief programs.
Most of all, retailers expect that the feeling of community and the teamwork in stores to continue to resonate in 2021, NACS added.
"With the shutdown of restaurants and entertainment, people still need to see familiar faces and be able to have some normalcy to their daily lives. Many of our customers continue to come in for that cup of coffee and to be greeted by our employees that they see every day on their way to work. We have received many words of thankfulness for our support of our communities," said Randy Fuller at Jasper, Texas-based Bill L. Dover Co. Inc., which operates 16 Jiffy Markets.
Retailers also recognized the efforts of workers at other stores. In April and May, it was common to see retailers rewarding healthcare workers with special offers in recognition of their important work.
The NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey was conducted in December by NACS Research. A total of 71 member companies, representing a cumulative 1,717 stores, participated in the survey.