Five Convenience & Fuel Trends to Watch in 2021

Contactless shopping options will remain mainstays, while convenience retailers should emphasize prepared foodservice.

ATLANTA — Visits to convenience stores have changed significantly, impacted by safety concerns, EMV payment rules, vehicle types, fuel offers and more.

According to data from NACS, the number of convenience store transactions decreased 13.9 percent in 2020, while industry inside sales increased 1.5 percent as customers visited local convenience stores for daily shopping needs.

Despite the struggles fuel battled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the summer of 2021 in full swing, more than 47.7 million Americans took to the nation's roadways and skies this Independence Day (July 1-5), AAA reported.

NCR Corp., a software- and services-led enterprise provider in the financial, retail and hospitality industries, shared insights on the convenience retail industry and what technology trends are expected to play out over the rest of the year and beyond:

1. Contactless Remains King

Contactless payments, self-checkout and curbside pickup will remain mainstays in 2021. With COVID-19 accelerating c-stores' adoption of many types of technologies and practices that reduced contact between store employees and customers, consumers have liked and become accustomed to the convenience of these practices so much that many retailers will extend these capabilities in 2021 and beyond.

2. Non-Compliance Increases the Chance of Fraud

As of April, retailers — rather than credit card providers — became liable for any card fraud committed at fuel pumps that do not accept EMV payments. Even so, a significant portion of fuel industry retailers still have not upgraded their pumps to be compliant with the new rules, leaving them open to potential financial loss if their locations are compromised by fraudsters.

Fuel retailers in areas that have traditionally experienced significant card scams and fraud at the pumps are more likely to have made the expensive but necessary enhancements to their pumps. Retailers in traditionally lower-fraud areas have likely been slower to roll out new pumps. Rather, they have chosen to spend money on other upgrades, such as ways to improve customer experience.

3. Foodservice Increases in C-stores

According to NACS, 58 percent of c-stores plan to emphasize prepared foodservice, while 51 percent will focus on fresh prepared meals. Adding food can make convenience stores more than just a necessary stop: It can make the store a destination, particularly for consumers who've become accustomed to cutting down on shopping trips this past year, NCR said.

4. Capitalizing on Electric Vehicles

With just 100,000 charging plugs at approximately 41,000 public stations, c-stores will be considering adding them to their forecourts to cater to more drivers and to increase sales inside stores.

According to NCR, convenience retailers that also offer fuel could do well expanding into electric charging. Because charging a car takes more time than fueling one, savvy retailers will entice drivers into the store while they charge their vehicle. If that average charge takes roughly 30 minutes, consumers will be drawn to locations that offer enough entertainment and shopping to occupy their time.

However, c-store operators should also keep an eye out for connected car technology that allows drivers to make pump payments from inside their vehicle. 

5. Delivery Keeps Delivering

C-stores were increasingly adopting third-party delivery services before the coronavirus, but the global pandemic propelled its growth even more. Many convenience brands offset declining fuel sales through services things like digital ordering and delivery and will continue to look to quicker delivery services as another way to serve customers and improve sales.

"Consumers have become accustomed to popular services like curbside, delivery, contactless and better foodservice options that c-stores increasingly offer. They'll no doubt expect these trends to continue in 2021 and beyond," said Paul Kern, executive director of product management for NCR. "The more sophisticated retailers are really paying attention to customers' purchasing patterns and how they interact with store employees. The next step is figuring out how to get to know those consumers even better, so retailers can add more value, sell more and keep consumers coming back."

NCR is based in Atlanta.