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Wooing The Female Shopper


Convenience stores have long relied on males to pay the bills, but female shoppers tend to bring a higher ring and wield more influence

There are certain facts that convenience industry insiders have come to accept: a store should be open 24/7; it must be stocked with coffee, cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets; and the majority of customers walking through the door will be males in the 18-to-30-year-old age group.

That does not mean things can't change, however. Last year, Pacific Convenience & Fuels LLC (PC&F) opened two new ground-up locations with a different consumer in mind. While no one would mistake either store for a day spa, they are both designed to attract the same demographic — females.

The new stores come at a time when the West Coast convenience store chain is looking to expand its reach to not only include females, but also the younger generations.

"Our customers are 60 percent male and 40 percent female, but we want to expand our demographic overall," explained Chris Wilson, general manager for PC&F. "The female customer spends more per transaction — about $2 to $3 more — than their male counterparts. They also buy higher-margin items like bottled water. So, we want the female customer for what she is buying and how much she is buying. Also, they usually have kids in the car and they are our future customers."

Females are a valued customer to The Parker Cos., operator of Parker's Convenience Stores in the Southeast, as well. "Attracting more female shoppers has been key to our success at Parker's," said Greg Parker, president. "We all know 'Bubba' is our No. 1 customer, but we focus our attention on the working mother. She's the lens through which we view everything we do because she's the most time-starved and the most-demanding customer."

Many retailers acknowledge the importance of the female consumer, but at the same time, most do not know how to attract her. And of those who try, only a few seem to be doing it well.

"The female shopper is far more important than most of the operators have realized," said Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS). "She is hard to attract and even harder to keep."

Why? As Calvin explained, female consumers expect more than male consumers.

"In my observation, many women are professional shoppers. They have done it a lot; they are very discerning. Their expectations are high and they are hard to win over," he said.

Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS), acknowledged that convenience store operators have been talking about the importance of the female customer for more than 30 years, but to date, the majority of operators he sees have not done a good job executing a successful strategy to attract her.

"Thirty years ago, we were in meetings at 7-Eleven talking about strategies to market to 'active females,' whatever that means," noted Tudor, who has been in the c-store business for 36 years, the first 10 years with 7-Eleven.

Wilson of PC&F noted that convenience store retailers such as Sheetz and Wawa stand out on the East Coast; however, no West Coast retailer has been able to go after women shoppers well. They are still very much marketing to the blue-collar male — the beer and cigarettes buyer, he said.

"Convenience stores are fighting traditional stereotypes," he added. "A lot of companies have done a good job attracting female customers, but not the majority."

PC&F hopes it is heading down the right path with its two new stores. "In the past year, we built two ground-up stores really with the female customer in mind, but we also kept in mind that we didn't want to alienate the male customer," Wilson said. "And in these stores, anecdotally, the customer mix is 50-50."


Over years of trial and error, a few "musts" have emerged when it comes to attracting the female consumer to convenience stores, according to the industry insiders.

"Feeling safe is an absolute must," Calvin said. "So is a clean, well-lit, organized store with friendly customer service, competitive pricing, fresh products and a community connection. It is not just one thing. All those things rolled together contribute to a woman feeling as if she wants to shop at a particular store."

Tudor echoed those observations. "My wife, who as a former c-store manager knows a few things about these things, refuses to go into most stores because they are not clean, especially the restrooms," he said. "If the restrooms aren't clean, she wonders how fresh the 'fresh' stuff really is."

Females will shop c-stores that meet these needs, though. A 40-year-old mother of three from Pittsburgh, Pa., told Convenience Store News that she tends to gravitate toward Sheetz stores. "I know the coffee is fresh and good, and the bathrooms are clean," she said. "We especially look for Sheetz when we are traveling since they tend to have a large selection with regards to drinks and food. I hate getting fast food on the road, but sometimes there's nothing else. With Sheetz, they have some healthy selections — fresh fruit and cheese — as well as their MTOs [made-to-order] sandwiches."

PC&F has taken notice of what's important to women. Realizing that bathrooms are one of the most important factors for females when selecting a store to shop at, the company is launching Operation Porcelain Pride to remodel the rest-rooms at all of its locations.

"We heard the female consumers loud and clear that they want clean bathrooms," Wilson said.

Safety also ranks at the top of the list for female consumers, he noted. "We try to keep loiterers away from the stores. If a panhandler is by the pumps or outside the front of the store, females will not stop," Wilson said, adding that PC&F also keeps the store windows clear so female consumers can see in and out of the store.

This is not to say that male consumers don't also care about cleanliness or safety. Industry insiders agree that they are just not as demanding as their female counterparts.

"I cannot imagine campaigns that make stores cleaner with more fresh merchandise would have a negative effect," Tudor said of c-stores' core male shoppers. "Assuming we are still stocking SKUs that this customer demands, I don't see a down side."

Parker agrees, saying that any c-store that steps up its game can't go wrong. "Don't ever lose sight of 'the Bubba' — he is still our bread and butter. But if you create retail environments that please women, you get everyone else in the process," he said.

The most effective ways to do that are by streamlining the speed of transactions at the register, improving lighting in the store, offering clean bathrooms, making smart landscaping decisions, and keeping store windows clean and trash cans empty, Parker noted.

PC&F's new stores seem to have hit the sweet spot between the two demographics. The locations have full-service coffee baristas, two restrooms — one male, one female — and the retailer expanded the product mix to include more fresh items and higher-quality products.

"Those stores where we started from scratch, we made some inroads," Wilson said. "The older stores are a little more of a challenge and that is where brand building comes in. There may be females who stopped at a store eight years ago and left with a bad impression. We need to convey to that female [shopper] that things have changed."

At its older locations, PC&F is adding more open-air cases, fresh pastries and, in some stores, a frozen yogurt bar as part of its new strategy, according to Wilson.


Compelling discounts are another avenue c-store operators can take to draw in the female consumer.

Calvin of NYACS cited Sunoco's rewards tie-in with Price Chopper supermarkets in upstate New York. Through the Fuel Advantage program, consumers earn points for buying groceries in Price Chopper and can redeem those points for discounts on gas at Sunoco stations.

"This has enabled Sunoco locations in upstate New York to attract more female consumers, at least for the gas pumps. I don't know if that translates to inside the store," he said. "The compelling offer of pennies or more off the pump price has been very attractive, not just to women, but I think it has brought more females onto the lot of Sunoco locations."

However, Tudor of GACS noted that pay-at-the-pump technology enables females to buy gas at convenience stores without entering the store.

One 37-year-old mother of three from Franklin, Tenn., told CSNews that she usually shops at Costco where she can buy in bulk for her family of five. She also fills up her tank while at the big-box outlet, noting that her youngest daughter is still in a car seat so getting in and out of a convenience store is not quick or easy.

Another good tip for attracting the hard-to-get female demographic is to make strides with the mothers via her children, Calvin said. "Stores that do it well also offer things that appeal to both children and mothers," he noted, adding that it can range from discounts like free ice cream on a certain day each month or some children-oriented activity.

A 41-year-old mother of one from Annapolis, Md., agrees that it helps that her daughter likes their local c-store. "I use Wawa primarily," she said. "I am there almost daily. The gas is less expensive than anywhere else around and the coffee is fresh and really good. [My daughter] loves their milkshakes and cookies, too."


Aside from expanding their demographic reach, c-store retailers should pay attention to the female consumer for the power she wields. According to a study by Fleishman-Hillard International Communications, in conjunction with Hearst Magazines, females have an increasing impact as a receiver, broadcaster and influencer — not just within her family, but her social circle as well.

More to the point, the study found that 54 percent of all women agree that it is their responsibility to help friends and family make smart buying decisions.

"During the past few years, we have watched the evolution of women and their sphere of influence," said Nancy Bauer, senior vice president and senior partner, Fleishman-Hillard. "Simply put, when it comes to the dynamics of today's marketplace, women have changed the marketing communications game. The 2012 female consumer is a valuable broadcaster and an amplifier of ideas in the marketplace."

Secondary to how she makes her buying decisions is who she tells about the product or experience. In 2011, according to the study, more than 50 percent of women surveyed said they regularly influence friends and family to buy or not buy a product or service. That was a notable uptick from three years earlier when that number stood at 31 percent.

A married 47-year-old female from Bloomfield, N.J., said a female neighbor did just that when she and her husband moved into the neighborhood. "When I was moving to Bloomfield, we scoped out the area and noticed a Quick Chek that's within walking distance from our house. My next-door neighbor told us we would be there all the time and for a bit, we were," she said.

Aside from the locale, she said the Quick Chek store offers good iced coffee and a no-fee ATM.

The no-fee ATM is also the reason a single female who divides her time between Staten Island, N.Y., and Washington Crossing, Pa., chooses to shop at a particular c-store. "While on Staten Island, I go to the 7-Eleven close to my house," she said. "They have an ATM that doesn't charge me a fee, which is a huge reason, since my bank is [a municipal credit union] and they only have one location on [Staten Island]."

However, when she is in Pennsylvania, she suffers from a so-called food desert. "In Pennsylvania, I shop at Cumberland Farms a lot because there isn't a supermarket close to the house and if we need to pick up milk, bread or snacks, it's a lot closer," she explained, adding that when in Pennsylvania, she is at Cumberland Farms on a weekly basis.


Gradually, as the industry moves more toward foodservice, fresh produce and take-home meals, Calvin believes the product offering will be more conducive to attracting female customers.

"But we need to create that type of environment they care about," he stressed. "They need to feel as if they belong and they can trust the operator; that they are not being overcharged and they are buying good, quality products."

Wilson said the industry overall is still not really focused on the female customer. "There are some that are doing it well, but still the majority is not focused on it, like small chains or independent operators," he said, adding that some of these retailers may not attend industry events or conferences and therefore miss out on the benefits of industry insights.

"There are some that still think 'I will just price beer and cigarettes as low as I can and hope for the best," he commented. "Those days will come to an end, but it will be a long road."

For comments, please contact Melissa Kress, Associate Editor, at [email protected].

Paging Female Shoppers

To bring female consumers in the door — and keep them coming back — convenience stores must:

  • Be safe and well lit;
  • Be organized and clean; especially the bathrooms;
  • Offer competitive pricing;
  • Provide friendly customer service; and
  • Add fresh products to the mix.
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