C-store retailers are trading up to business models and prototypes that are more sophisticated and … well, convenient.
By Robert Nieminen
Convenience stores have traditionally provided on-the-go consumers with a few essentials: fuel, cigarettes, beverages/ snacks, and restrooms. This simple model has worked for decades—and still does. But that’s beginning to change. Convenience stores have traditionally provided on-the-go consumers with a few essentials: fuel, cigarettes, beverages/ snacks, and restrooms. This simple model has worked for decades—and still does. But that’s beginning to change. In 2018, U.S. C-store sales surged 8.9% to $654.3 billion, led by an increase in fuel sales, which account for nearly 70% of total sales, according to National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) State of the Industry data. In-store sales rose to a record $242.2 billion.
“Fuel sales were strong in 2018, but consumers were making fewer stops to refuel, which suggests that greater fuel efficiency in vehicles is translating to less trips per week to the convenience store,” says Andy Jones, NACS vice chairman of research and president/CEO of Sprint Food Stores.
To address the evolving market, C-store retailers will need to take cues from other retail segments. “With reduced dependence on fossil fuels expected, savvy C-store retailers will increase appeal with higher quality and a broader array of products and services,” says Tom Henken, VP and director of design at api(+) design firm. “Improvements will be necessary to capture lost sales at the pump and a drop in in-store sales based on less need for fuel.”
Nadine Geering, SVP of business strategy for design firm D|Fab, notes that other segments are providing personalized shopping experiences. While convenience stores may have the efficiency advantage over other retail formats, they need to “create a seamless online and in-store brand presence, as well as offer a unique brand experience for customers,” she advises.
The prevalence of BOPIS and scan-and-pay mobile apps are challenging the traditional C-store model, according to Ivelisse Ruiz, VP of brand marketing at RGLA Solutions. “Shopper expectations are driving demand for better mobile apps that can deliver rewards, better pricing, and payment choices and delivery options,” she says.
Case in point: While commuting 40 miles to work, Ruiz realized she had left her wallet at home when her low-fuel indicator came on. Using her phone, she searched for gas stations that accept Apply Pay and downloaded an app to create an account, which enabled her to refuel.
High ceilings, as in this Repsol ON in Madrid, elevate C-stores into a new age.
Such convenience is not universal. “There are a couple of leaders, and then there are mostly laggards,” says Ryan Slicer, associate creative director of design firm ChangeUp. “Wawa and a couple of others are taking it upon themselves to morph this industry and separate themselves from the pack.” He notes that forward-thinking C-store brands are creating spaces with a coffee-shop vibe, complete with leather seats and bar tops, for example, or even serving alcohol on-site. “They’re taking that next step in the evolution of what a convenience store could be,” he says.
Stores like this api(+)-designed Cruizers in Wendell, N.C., U.S., are sporting bright interiors as well as double-wide, curbless entrances for improved access. PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER GAROFALO
Filling up while filling up
Driving the evolution of C-stores are the same factors driving change in every segment: Customers want more of everything— speed, convenience, value, safety, and cleanliness, Henken says. Slicer adds, “Consumers want everything at once. They want a little bit of a grocery store, a little bit of a health benefit, and a place to walk their dog potentially.”
So convenience retailers need to offer more of what they already do, with a focus on consumer preferences and quality. Nowhere is this more evident than in food selections.
A central hospitality space in Quicklee’s in Avon, N.Y., U.S., off ers respite for locals as well as families on road trips and fl eet drivers, while the merchandise assortment meets the needs of all. PHOTO: LARRY TETAMORE
“The days of the roller dog are still here,” Slicer says, but adds that many chains have supplanted such fare with better food—in some cases, better than typical QSR food. Geering echoes the opinion, saying consumers are increasingly “embracing fresh and perishable products for quick consumption at convenience stores.”
By offering higher quality foods and competitive pricing, smart retailers can create a value proposition that competes with most fast-food options, Henken says. He notes that Millennials, in particular, expect healthy food options, higher quality, and a broader assortment of food in C-stores.
“Everyone cares about health these days, or at least the perception of health,” Slicer says, so many companies are creating a perception of concern for customers’ health. For this reason, many C-stores are placing items like fresh fruit and Kind bars front and center to appeal to consumers’ desire for healthier food options.
Stores appeal to modern consumers with natural textures, such as stone (Meijer C-Stop, Grand Rapids, Mich., U.S.) and stained oak (Go Bears, Grand Coteau. La., U.S.). Wawa is a leader in the move to make C-stores friendlier spaces that encourage dwell time. WAWA PHOTO: JAMIE PADGETT
Fueling design upgrades
Thanks to the democratization of design, customers expect well-designed products and spaces wherever they go, including C-Stores. “The design bar has been raised a certain degree, so people expect authenticity. They expect real materials and natural materials in many cases,” Slicer says. He points out that people don’t respond well to stores full of synthetic plastics or materials that look cheap and aren’t durable. Rather, beautifully hewn woods or stone tilework communicate a message to customers about a brand, “and the good brands recognize that,” he says.
Geering says successful C-stores today “are providing both the efficient quick-trip in a well-designed store, and an area for customers to decompress with a coffee or meal and catch up on their social media.” Clean store layouts and bathrooms with upgraded finishes, well-branded interior environments, and clean bathrooms make customers feel valued and welcome, she explains. WiFi, charging stations, and indoor and outdoor seating add another level of comfort.
api(+) is ensuring space for fresh offerings and the means to prepare them in stores like Parker’s in Ridgeland, S.C., U.S. BACKEND PHOTO: KYUNNIE SHUMAN, COUNTER PHOTO: COURTESY OF API(+)
Aesthetics matter. “Architecture foreshadows the experience inside and brings people in,” Henken says. Retailers are improving access, eliminating curbs and adding double entrances. “RaceTrac and QuikTrip are good at this,” he says. “C-stores want to make it easy to enter the store.”
On the interior, store layouts are changing; api(+) is designing for broader fresh offerings including preparation space without cramping the customer experience. Henken also sees a trend toward higher ceilings and brighter environments.
Many retailers are also tailoring their products and services to the local community, according to Geering. She cites Quicklee’s. Serving, locals, travelers, and professional drivers, its new prototype store features merchandising to meet the needs of each customer group. Professional drivers, for instance, have dedicated services, a broad merchandise selection for household, and shower rooms. “A centrally located hospitality space, however, is the new facet to the store, to appeal to all customers with recliners, dine-in seating, a fireplace, and TV,” Geering says.
Left: Airport C-stores like this RGLA-designed store at Minneapolis-St. Paul Internati onal Airport are luring travelers with neighborhood vibes. PHOTO: CHARLIE MAYER PHOTOGRAPHY Middle: Fresh food off erings include baked goods at SuperCor Stop&Go in Madrid. PHOTO: OSCAR ARRIBAS PHOTOGRAPHY/OSCAR ARRIBAS Right: C-stores are becoming part mini grocery store, like this api(+)-designed Walmart To Go in Bentonville, Ark., U.S. PHOTO: MARK A. STEELE
Pumping new life into the segment
Likewise, Ruiz says operators of airport-based C-stores are rethinking those retail models, conducting extensive remodels to elevate the experience with a modern, neighborhood vibe. “We recently completed stores within the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, Detroit Airport, and Austin Airport as part of our partnership with Delaware North, and localization has played a key factor in our design, bringing the neighborhood experience into the airport,” she says.
Henkens boils it down this way: “In the near future, the focus will move away from fuel, and the big challenge all C-stores will have is becoming more convenient and relevant to the consumer, who has come to expect convenience from every facet of their lives.”
Cutting-edge retailers like Centra in Ireland are adding indoor and outdoor seating to allow people to consume today’s better food choices on the premises. PHOTO: 82MM
Robert Nieminen is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who has covered commercial interiors since 2002.