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Study Reveals Why and How Consumers Shop C-stores

It's all about the consumer, c-store operators are likely to say. But what do consumers really want in a c-store?

According to exclusive new consumer research conducted by Convenience Store News this year, consumers most often go to c-stores to buy gasoline, followed by beverages, snacks and lottery tickets. The most frequent shoppers tend to be younger and male. And consumers tend to shop most often at c-stores when out running other errands, traveling for pleasure, or going to and from work or school. In addition, more consumers buy food for immediate consumption than to take home and eat.

CSNews conducted exclusive research early this year to explore the preferences and habits of c-store shoppers throughout the U.S. Using the 2.5 million-strong consumer panel of MarketTools Inc., a survey was conducted in January. Results include responses from 1,085 adults (18 years and older) who shopped at a c-store within the past 30 days.

Part 1 of this report looks at the when, why and what of consumer shopping habits at c-stores. Part 2, coming up in the April 12 issue, will focus on how consumers shop specific product categories.

On average, almost one-half of these respondents (45.3 percent) report shopping at a c-store at least once a week.

Men are more likely to be part of this frequent-shopper group, as significantly more men than women shop at convenience stores every day (11.1 percent vs. 5.9 percent) and two or three times a week (19.2 percent vs. 13.9 percent). Just over one-quarter (27.9 percent) can be considered infrequent c-store shoppers, shopping at these locations less than once a month. More women than men make up this last segment, as 31.4 percent shop less than once a month compared to 24.1 percent of men. Significantly more c-store shoppers in the youngest age segment of 18-24 year olds shop almost every day, compared to those in all other age groups combined (14.2 percent vs. 7.5 percent, respectively). On the other hand, 44.7 percent of shoppers age 55 or older shop c-stores less than once a month.

What brings shoppers to c-stores? Gasoline is the biggest lure, as 71.2 percent of respondents shop for this reason. Beverages ranks second as a draw, cited by 48.8 percent of shoppers, followed by snacks (30.9 percent) and lottery tickets (26.4 percent).

Looking at patterns among specific groups, lottery tickets is cited as a reason to shop by consumers in the 45-54 age group more than all other age segments combined (38.1 percent vs. 23.8 percent respectively). While about one-fifth of c-store shoppers (21.4 percent) said they go to purchase candy or gum, significantly more women than men visit c-stores for this reason (24.2 percent vs. 18.4 percent). Additionally -- and not surprisingly -- more shoppers in households with children cite candy as their reason for shopping compared to those with no children (28.2 percent vs. 18.3 percent).

Shoppers stop at c-stores for at a variety of occasions, most often when running other errands (44.1 percent); while traveling for pleasure (42.7 percent); and while traveling to/from work/school (42.5 percent). Almost one-quarter (23.7 percent) of shoppers at the highest income level of $100,000 or more shop while traveling for business -- more than any other income segment.

About 16 percent of shoppers said they go to c-stores to purchase some type of prepared food intended for immediate consumption, and an additional 10.5 percent go to buy food for consumption later or when they return home.

Judging by the number of multiple responses, c-store shoppers typically find themselves in the store at a variety of times. More than one-third of respondents (36.5 percent) go to c-stores between 4 p.m. and 6:59 p.m., a time that includes after-school and the evening rush hour from work. About one-fifth of respondents include c-stores in their morning rush-hour routine, as 19.4 percent shop between 6 a.m. and 8:59 a.m. More shoppers with children in the household are in c-stores during each of these rush hour periods than those with no children (23.8 percent vs. 17.3 percent in the morning, 41.1 percent vs. 34.4 percent in the evening).

Logically, more shoppers in their prime working years, from the ages of 25 through 54, stop at c-stores during the morning rush, while both their youngest (18- to 24-year-olds) and oldest (55 and older) counterparts apparently get to sleep in; only roughly 12 percent from each group report shopping at c-stores at this time.

In total, the early lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 12:59 p.m. attract one-fifth of c-stores shoppers (20.5 percent), while the later 1 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. time brings in almost one-third (31.5 percent).

Since gasoline is the top reason c-store customers shop these stores, it's no surprise gasoline is also the product purchased most often by survey respondents in the past month -- 72.6 percent of total respondents. At 80.7 percent, more shoppers in the South purchase gasoline at a c-store than in other regions.

Inside the store, candy/gum and canned/bottled soda are the most popular purchases (according to 32.4 percent and 32.2 percent of respondents, respectively). Lottery tickets and prepared food were each purchased in the last month by 25 percent of shoppers.

Looking at gender differences, significantly more men than women are responsible for purchases of beer and malt beverages (15.3 percent vs. 9.9 percent), energy drinks (10.7 percent vs. 6.0 percent), sports drinks (10.3 percent vs. 6.2 percent) and meat snacks (9.4 percent vs. 4.3 percent).

The median amount spent for in-store purchases (not including gas) is $6, while the average is $14.64. This gap indicates some high-ticket purchases are pushing up the average, and indeed, 16.3 percent of respondents report spending $20 or more on their last purchase. Almost two-thirds (63.6 percent) spent less than $10 on their last purchase.

Cash remains the payment method of choice for the last in-store purchase for half of all respondents (51.4 percent). Debit cards were used by one-quarter (24.7 percent), while credit cards were used by one-fifth (20.2 percent).

Among the almost three-quarters of total respondents who purchased gas at a c-store in the past month, more than one-half (53.1 percent) report purchasing in-store merchandise along with a gas purchase at least some of the time. Slightly less than one-half (46.9 percent) said they rarely or never go inside the store for a merchandise or foodservice purchase. Shoppers 55 or older fall into this group more often than those in all other age segments combined (54.7 percent vs. 44.3 percent, respectively).

When this last group was asked why they don't buy in-store merchandise when they stop for gas at a c-store, the reason given most often was they simply didn't need anything else at that time. Almost as often, however, respondents voiced the opinion that convenience stores are more expensive than other options, particularly grocery stores.

The inconvenience of going into the store, particularly when paying at the pump or when traveling with small children, was also mentioned frequently. Significantly, however, more shoppers with children in their household said they buy in-store merchandise almost every time they shop for gas compared to those without children (16.4 percent vs. 9.7 percent).

We asked these shoppers what type of promotions might lure them to make in-store purchases when stopping for gas. Coupons was the top answer, cited by 43.5 percent, followed by frequent buyer/loyalty programs (25.7 percent); in-store displays (16 percent); banner/window signs (14.4 percent); pump toppers (13.3 percent); car wash promotions (13.3 percent); and in-store promotional signage (12.8 percent).

While convenience stores are the market share leaders in gasoline, other retail outlets claim a fair portion of consumer traffic. Gas-only locations are frequented by 65.1 percent of c-store shoppers. These outlets are a particular draw for the 18- to 24-year-old shoppers, as 81.6 percent report purchasing gas at fuel-only sites, compared to 63 percent for other age groups combined. Other outlets used for gas purchases include supermarkets (13.3 percent); wholesale clubs (11.5 percent); supercenters (8.9 percent); mass merchandisers (8.6 percent); and truck-stop plazas (7.0 percent). Supercenters and mass merchandisers are shopped more by respondents in the South (16.8 percent and 16.4 percent, respectively).

Approximately one-third of respondents (35.3 percent) indicated using at least one service offered at a c-store. The most popular services were car washes, used by 16.5 percent of these c-store shoppers, and ATMs, used by 15.9 percent. Car washes are used the most in the Midwest (18.2 percent).

A close majority of shoppers report typically shopping at the same convenience store each time (52.9 percent). Shoppers in the 55-plus age group appear to be most fickle -- or less tied to a set schedule -- as 56 percent said they do not shop at the same c-store on a regular basis.

A total of 11.2 percent said their usual c-store has a frequent shopper or loyalty program and they are enrolled, while 6.4 percent said they are not enrolled. These programs appear most popular in the Midwest, as 19.7 percent of respondents in this region report being enrolled.

Among those who said their usual store does not offer a program, shoppers are mixed: 41.8 percent said they would enroll if a program was instituted, but 40.6 said they would not. By region, more shoppers in the South expressed interest, with 46.8 percent saying they would enroll if a program was offered.
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