The competitive world of convenience store retailing presents challenges for any operator.
Those challenges are magnified for small, independent c-stores, which lack many of the resources their bigger, chain-backed competitors enjoy.
“C-stores, in and of themselves, have a challenge from a space perspective. For the small independents, it is especially hard,” says Susan Spires, vice president of category leadership at ConAgra Foods, one of North America’s largest food companies. “They have to be innovative and trial-driven, but still have to consider space constraints. Just putting out core items for their customers can make the space seem cramped.”
The recent surge of traditional, non-c-store operations into what Spires calls “the small format world” is an additional hurdle. “Companies like Walmart, Giant Eagle and Meijer, for example, are now offering gas,” she says. “That is muddying the waters and creating overlap—and it can hurt the smaller guys who don’t have the backing the larger stores have.”
Focus on the front
Optimizing their front end space is one way small c-store operators can compete with larger retailers, according to information released in ConAgra Foods’ July 2014 proprietary report, “Winning with a successful front-of-store experience in small-format channels.” The study, which asked consumers to comment on their front-end checkout experience, reinforced that convenience shoppers are not satisfied with the checkout process.
“They think it’s not quick enough, the lines are too long and not clearly defined, the counters are too cluttered, and too many obstacles hinder the checkout area,” Estelle Nichols, ConAgra Foods’ manager of Shopper Insights/Small Formats Channel says. “The checkout experience is the last impression shoppers have of the store, so by addressing these issues, c-stores operators can improve shopper satisfaction and ensure repeat visits.”
“If the front end and checkout areas are a cluttered mess, that image is ingrained in a customer’s head,” Spires adds. “So the question becomes, ‘How do you deliver the message you want to deliver for yourself as a store?’”
Stock up on snacks
Carrying and merchandising an appropriate mix of snacks products is one approach that can send an important message—one that positions your store as a snack destination for the growing number of consumers who snack throughout the day.
“Snacking as an occasion has exploded! Over 90 percent of consumers snack at least once a day, and 20 percent snack three to four times a day,” Spires says.
Instead of eating breakfast, for example, many people grab coffee on the way to work, wait until mid-morning to snack, then opt for a soft drink, apple, nuts or a meat snack instead of a full lunch, Spires says. Those new eating habits are prime opportunities on which c-stores can capitalize. Snack-seeking customers, however, now engage in “mindful snacking,” Spires says. They are watching portion sizes and ingredient profiles, but still want to indulge in that special treat.
“The more package offerings, flavors and healthy options stores have, the better,” she says. “The question is, ‘How do stores offer the right mix of products, and get the right balance?’ It’s about variety, not about duplication. The message c-stores want to portray is that they offer a lot of choices – but not too many.”
When it comes to crafting a message and determining the most popular and profitable product mix, large c-stores stores have a luxury small stores often lack.
“Manufacturers have strong relationships with larger chains and people devoted to those businesses,” Spires says. “But small stores in particular need exposure to insights and best practices—merchandising ideas and advice on how to shelve items, for example—that can be key to maximizing sales.
Recognizing that need, ConAgra Foods has stepped in to help.
“To support superior retail execution, ConAgra Foods recently launched a new customer-focused website that delivers best-in-class plan-o-gram recommendations, category insights, and ranking reports of top-selling items by region for the growing meat snacks and seeds categories,” Shirley Erlbacher, vice president of Convenience Sales for ConAgra Foods, says.
“The website, developed by the category management team, gives small, independent c-stores access to best practices,” Spires adds.
Operators who utilize the website can pull region-specific market data, find information about product and promotional trends, see merchandising and display options, and discover who is shopping and what they’re buying.
ConAgra’s utilization of syndicated data plus an industry leading assortment tool ensures that not just the top-selling items by market are being recommended for placement, but the optimal SKU mix is being recommended to maximize category sales and profits and limit cannibalization for retailers.
“If a store has seven kinds of barbecue seeds, it will show the fastest sellers as well as those that bring in incremental sales. It helps stores get the right mix by identifying shopper trends,” Spires explains.
Another plus: stores can access an email that connects them with someone in ConAgra Foods’ category management group. “Our people are the best resource we have!” Spires says.
Offering that kind of personal touch is important for small retailers, as well. “Today’s biggest trend is personalization,” Spires concludes. “Know your customers by name, know what they buy so when they come to your store they think, ‘This store is MY c-store.”