Sustainability & Convenience Stores: An Opportunity for the Industry

Operators must align with the values of the unique community their store supports.
convenience store industry sustainability

As consumers develop a more in-depth understanding of how their personal consumption and shopping habits affect the environment, they are also assessing the impact of the stores at which they shop most frequently. To build a strong connection with modern shoppers, convenience stores must begin to think about their sustainability strategies.

The urgency for stores to implement sustainability initiatives is clearly demonstrated in the newest study from the NACS/Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council (CCRRC), Convenience Store Customers and Sustainability: The Journey to Creating Brand Ambassadors. Consumers are navigating their own sustainability journeys, and the report highlights the expectation they have for the stores in their community to support them. 

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has focused shoppers on how important convenience stores are to their communities. Of the consumers surveyed and interviewed for the study, 68 percent said they visit a c-store as often or more than pre-pandemic.

During the times when shoppers struggled to find supplies and were fearful of shopping trips, convenience stores stood out as a place to obtain important goods in a smaller and seemingly safer environment. Through the years and even prior to COVID-19, customers have come to look at local convenience stores as an essential community partner which, in turn, means they expect the store to reflect their values and priorities — and sustainability is high on the list.

The study demonstrates that shopper loyalty can be built and reinforced by progressive action on a range of social issues, including sustainability. In fact, many shoppers say their loyalty, and their willingness to promote or recommend specific stores to others, could be improved or diminished depending on how their local stores address these issues.

The challenge many operators face is how to address a broad issue like sustainability in a realistic and financially sensible fashion. Fortunately, the current CCRRC/NACS study includes a simple road map that convenience store operators can use to identify the most appropriate initiatives for their stores.

Appearing on page 10 of the report, the road map outlines various actions operators can take, ranking them by both the difficulty of each action and the impact it is likely to have on shopper opinions. Operators should consider this a tool to help decide which actions can be easily implemented within their unique sustainability strategy based on the resources available to them.

For example, some of the most manageable actions with high levels of impact are related to the current COVID-19 situation. Offering hand-sanitizing stations, requiring masks and social distancing rank high among consumers as factors that help them decide where to shop.

Consumers surveyed for the report also indicated they would like to see their local convenience stores create incentives for shoppers to be more sustainable by encouraging reusable and recyclable drink containers. They would also like stores to offer environmentally friendly options such as paper straws.

Other initiatives such as the use of energy-efficient light bulbs and electric vehicle charging stations are viewed favorably, but are recognized as large financial investments for operators.

Ranking equally as high among sustainability concerns is consumers’ desire for c-store operators to exhibit value and appreciation for their staff. Diversity, inclusion and employee health and safety are important factors for shoppers, as well as increased wages and benefits. Consumers want to see their convenience store staff reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the local community they serve, and they appreciate when store staffers are encouraged to volunteer with local groups.

While each initiative outlined in the report may not serve every convenience store the same way, making any positive change toward a more sustainable operation is a win.

As the values of shoppers evolve, it’s increasingly important for operators to meet consumer expectations by implementing initiatives they can support long term. By aligning with the values of the unique community your store supports, it is possible to not only gain customer loyalty, but also become a part of the solution for environmental issues.

The entire report can be downloaded for free from the council’s website.

Michael Sansolo currently serves as the research director of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Councils of North America. Since 1978, CCRRC has established a trusted history of helping grocery and convenience retailers grow their business through relevant and exciting research topics.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.