ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Tempered optimism is in the air for U.S. convenience store owners, who anticipate that leisure travel and routine customer trips will return to pre-pandemic levels this summer, according to the results of the latest NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey.
Convenience stores sell 80 percent of the fuel purchased in the United States and experienced a 13 percent decrease in fuel sales and less customer traffic throughout the pandemic. The survey found that more than half of retailers (52 percent) say that summer travel and commuting patterns will be close to pre-pandemic levels.
At the same time, more than a quarter (28 percent) do not expect to see traditional travel patterns emerge until 2022.
Retailers anticipate growth in cold beverages and coffee (listed by 43 percent) along with immediate consumption prepared foods (62 percent), self-serve categories that experienced various state and local restrictions, and continue to experience such restrictions in some areas.
The pandemic-related decrease in commuting and vehicle miles driven during the past year prompted shifts in morning traffic and sales at c-stores, resulting in coffee and breakfast food sales off by 10 percent to 15 percent, NACS noted. C-store operators are currently reestablishing themselves as morning daypart destinations, with 40 percent offering discounts for repeat purchases and 27 percent promoting offers that incentivize shoppers to return for discounts.
"Retailers are optimistic that traditional driving routines are returning — from the morning commute to the family summer road trip — and that's great news not just for our industry but for the overall economy," said NACS Vice Chairman of Research and Technology Andy Jones, who is also the president and CEO of Augusta, Ga.-based Sprint Food Stores.
Prior to the pandemic, 83 percent of items sold at c-stores were considered immediate consumption, such as beverages or candy, and consumed within an hour of purchase. As consumers have relied on c-stores for take-home during the last year, retailers also expect those sales to increase. Thirty-six percent say they are focusing on multi-serve meals and prepared foods for future consumption, and 13 percent expect more stock-up grocery and pantry item sales.
Retailers also plan to continue safety protocols, with 71 percent encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. The most common incentives to do so are paid time off to get a vaccine (34 percent), coordinating a vaccine location specific to their employees (26 percent) and offering monetary incentives (10 percent).
When asked which retail innovations they saw in 2020 that they will apply to their stores, most retailers said contactless payments and last-mile offers such as home delivery and curbside pickup will grow. Additionally, 20 percent will expand services like drive-thrus, delivery and curbside pickup.
"Online ordering attached to a quick local delivery is not a new idea, but it is one that demonstrated significant use this past year. This has shown consumers that it is possible, and it will drive more usage and expectations, making it a standard option for retailers to provide," said Charlie McIlvaine, CEO of Canonsburg, Pa.-based Coen Markets.
Other retailers say that focusing on basic operations like inventory control and customer service will pay off as the end of the pandemic approaches.
"We saw the value of customer service — it's essential for us to be friendly and act locally to continue earning our community's support," said Malik Yousif, president of Manassas, Va.-based MYS Energy.
The NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey was fielded in March 2021 by NACS Research. A total of 70 member companies representing a cumulative 3,524 stores participated.