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PHOTO GALLERY: QuikTrip Moves to Top of Favorite Places to Fill Up

LOUISVILLE, Colo. —  Convenience stores and traditional gas stations are consumers' top picks for filling up, with QuikTrip Corp. ranking first among the favorites.

According to a new study by Market Force Information, most motorists continue to fill up at conventional gas stations vs. warehouse clubs or grocery store pumps, even though the latter tend to offer a lower price per gallon, particularly when combined with loyalty rewards.

For their most recent trip to the pump, 71 percent of drivers visited a gas station vs. 29 percent who visited a grocer, warehouse club or big-box retailer. Other key influencers in choosing a fueling stop are good lighting, fuel quality and payment options.

More than 11,000 consumers participated in the annual study, which ranks gas stations in two categories: traditional gas stations and convenience stores, and grocery stores and big-box retailers with gas pumps. The survey was conducted online in February across the United States.

Among c-stores and gas stations, Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip was ranked No. 1 by motorists in the study, pulling ahead of LaCrosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., which fell four spots to fifth place. Westborough, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms didn't earn enough votes in 2016 to make the list, but garnered enough this year to place it second. Rounding out the top five are Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. in third and Wawa, Pa.-based Wawa Inc. in fourth. 

Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey's General Stores Inc. and Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. each gained eight percentage points this year, and Phillips 66, headquartered in Houston, is again the highest-ranking national gas station brand, according to the study.

Market Force also evaluated how well fuel brands deliver on a spectrum of attributes. El Dorado, Ark.-based Murphy USA Inc. was the price-leader for the second consecutive year, placing ahead of Cumberland Farms and Wawa.

Kwik Trip tied with QuikTrip for cashier service and received high marks for appearance; though, QuikTrip dominated many of the other categories, ranking first in key areas such as fuel quality, merchandise selection, pump speed, ease of getting in and out, appearance of fueling area and availability of cleaning supplies, Market Force found.

"We're seeing huge spreads in many of these categories, and several are areas that could be better managed by the individual locations," said Cheryl Flink, chief strategy officer for Market Force. "For instance, having a crisp, well-maintained site and making sure the fueling area has squeegees makes a difference to attracting and keeping customers in this very competitive space. Price matters — but so does image."

According to Market Force, fresh food offerings like salads and made-to-order sandwiches are helping to drive motorists to c-stores. The study found that 21 percent of respondents bought a fresh food item during their last visit to a convenience store, and 86 percent were satisfied with the quality. 

Kwik Trip and Wawa led in fresh food purchases, although QuikTrip's customers were most satisfied with their food quality. 

Even though fresh foods are growing in popularity, most people are still buying the basics when they visit a gas station or convenience store. Of the 30 percent of customers who purchased an additional item, most picked up non-alcoholic drinks, snacks and coffee. Phillips 66 and Kwik Trip had the most retail purchases of the brands studied.

Customers are also taking advantage of other services offered at c-stores and gas stations. During their most recent visit, 14 percent used the restroom, 5 percent put air in their tires and 3 percent used the car wash. 

In the grocery and big-box category, Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp. overtook the No. 1 spot from Westborough, Mass.-based BJ's Wholesale Club — an honor Costco gave up in 2016 after placing first in 2015 with a sizeable lead. Bentonville, Ark.-based Sam's Club ranked second, BJ's and Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. tied for third, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart was fourth and Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway landed in fifth place. 

Looking at the attributes that drive customer satisfaction, Market Force found that Costco led in most of them, although it tied for last with Safeway for ease of getting in and out, and was last for cleaning supply availability. 

Sam's Club and Walmart tied for ease of getting in and out, and Sam's Club ranked second to Costco for fuel quality, price, pump speed and appearance. The grocery chains had the lowest marks for payment authorization speed, likely due to the extra time required to process loyalty cards at the pump, according to the study.

Notably, only 19 percent of respondents said they made an additional retail purchase when they last filled up at a grocer or big-box store, and, of those, most purchased from BJ's.  

The study also found that gas and convenience store mobile app usage continues to rise steadily, with 13 percent saying they've used one, up from 10 percent in 2016. GasBuddy is by far the most popular app (cited by 58 percent). 

However, retailers' branded apps are gaining steam, with 41 percent of customers reporting they've used one. The most popular app features, in order, include the ability to compare fuel prices, locate gas stations and manage loyalty programs. 

Mobile payments are also becoming more widely used in some sectors, but gas and convenience isn't one of them, according to Market Force.

Less than 1 percent of customers used a mobile payment form for their most recent fuel or retail purchase at a gas station or convenience store. A fairly low one in 10 reported using cash, while 77 percent used either a credit or debit card.  

Louisville-based Market Force provides location-level measurement solutions that help businesses protect their brand reputation, delight customers and make more money. Solutions include customer experience surveys, mystery shopping and contact center data integrated on one technology and analytics platform. 

Most Critical Factors in Deciding Where to Fuel: With so many options on every corner, customers have their choice of gas stations. So what factors help them decide where to fuel up? Price ranks the highest at 77 percent.
Favorite Gas Stations/Convenience Stores: Regional c-store chains rank among customers' favorites. QuikTrip earned 71 percent of the votes to place No. 1.
Fueling Station Attribute Rankings: Murphy USA scored the highest for fuel price and Cumberland Farms bested others for speed of payment authorization.
Fueling Station Attribute Rankings, continued
Retail Environment Attribute Rankings: QuikTrip shares the top spot with Kwik Trip for cashier service (81 percent) and with Wawa for store appearance and maintenance (79 percent).
Fresh Food Purchases & Satisfaction Rates: The perception of "gas station food" is changing and more motorists are adding fresh food to their baskets, but the numbers still seem a little low.
Favorite Grocery/Big-Box Stores for Fuel: C-store retailers not only compete with other players in the convenience industry when it comes to fueling up but with other retail channels.
Grocery & Big-Box Attribute Rankings: Customers placed Costco Wholesale among the top grocery and big-box retailers in many categories.
Gas/Convenience Apps That Consumers Have Used: The most popular app features, in order, include the ability to compare fuel prices, locate gas stations and manage loyalty programs.
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