CHICAGO — Convenience is the name of the industry, but c-store operators can do more to "own" convenience.
During last week's 2017 NACS State of the Industry Summit, Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives, for NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, discussed how customers view convenience stores and the opportunities available to retailers based on these views.
Lenard presented data from a 2013 NACS benchmark consumer survey, along with more recent research revealing details on what consumers think about c-stores and why they visit them. In the 2013 survey, consumers said they liked the basic value proposition of c-stores; unhealthy food and snacks were strongly associated with c-stores; and the opening of new c-stores raised local concerns, as c-stores were perceived as disconnected from the community and offering little opportunity for employee advancement.
Since the 2013 benchmark survey, convenience stores have evolved, and new NACS research shows that consumers have taken notice. When asked to list in-store trends they have observed at c-stores, consumers pointed to the additions of prepared foods and healthy options.
How can c-store operators capitalize on the changing perception of the industry?
The morning daypart presents a prime opportunity, according to Lenard. People are most likely to think about healthy products at breakfast, he explained.
"They wake up very aspirational. As the day wears on, it's cheeseburgers and beer for dinner. But they start the day thinking healthy," Lenard said.
Consumers are increasingly skipping breakfast, and a significant number of younger consumers say they do so because they don't have time for it. This gives c-stores the chance to make breakfast easier for consumers, save them time, and become part of their routine.
"Which items do people typically eat for breakfast? We sell pretty much everything on that list," Lenard pointed out.
Incentives such as Wawa's "Free Coffee Fridays" are a way to prompt consumers to change their morning routine, he added.
The number of consumers who believe c-stores are a good fit with their community's values has also risen, but there's more store operators can do. If stores "think local" and sell locally-produced products, that will continue to shift perception, according to the NACS executive.
Increased focus on nutrition is another way to combat the local "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) resistance to opening new c-stores. Those opposed to opening new stores cited "becoming an outlet for fresh/healthy food" as something that would make them more favorable to a c-store opening in their community.
Additionally, a survey from earlier this year revealed that if consumers could tell a c-store owner to do one thing differently, it would be to either lower their prices or clean more, especially their bathrooms.
"There can be a value in great bathrooms," Lenard said. Seventy percent of consumers say they are likely to visit a c-store bathroom while on vacation, and whether it's out of genuine need or a feeling of obligation, they frequently buy something before or after the bathroom break.
Bathrooms also relate strongly to foodservice sales because if the bathroom isn't clean, consumers are unlikely to trust that the kitchen is sanitary.
Finally, labor is an area where c-stores should continue to work on changing the industry message. In the 2013 benchmark survey, more than half of consumers viewed c-store jobs as dead-end jobs with little room for advancement. However in 2016, the majority of c-store employees saw value in their work experience, including the level of flexibility and the amount of pay consistent with that experience.
"We have a story to tell around labor, and it's something we're continuing to do," Lenard said.
To help the industry continue to move forward, NACS is offering a Community Toolkit that provides resources and advice on how to give back, be a good neighbor, and tell a business' story. This will better equip c-stores to face coming changes in payment, shopping habits, and the retail landscape at large, according to the association.
Above all, Lenard encourages c-store operators to go beyond what's expected in terms of how they serve their community.
"Don't just do what you're supposed to do," he said.
The 2017 NACS State of the Industry Summit took place April 4-6 at Chicago's Hyatt Regency O'Hare.