C-Stores Feed The Buzz

The holidays are upon us. For many of us that means hitting the road and, most likely, filling up on gas and other items at our favorite convenience store. 

7-ElevenWawaCircleK. Speedway. The list goes on and on. The convenience store (C-store in market-speak) industry is becoming more complex and increasingly facing some fierce competition from a number of other types of retailers, fast food chains and even financial service providers.

Although the majority of C-stores’ bread and butter is gasoline sales, managers and marketers have pulled out all the stops to get people into the store and away from the gas pumps by offering prepared foods, specialty beverages, cafes, sundries and other non-gas items. 7-Eleven leads the industry in store count, but when it comes to brand loyalty, regional players are equally successful. In fact, the total sample of Wawa users average 4.7 foodservice purchases per month for foodservice items compared to the total sample of 7-Eleven users’ average of 4.0 per month. In our home state of Pennsylvania, the Sheetz chain offers signature Made to Order (MTO) items that include Angus beef burgers, premium grilled chicken sandwiches, freshly-made salads and more, along with their MTGo! and “Schweetz” Bakery line of sandwiches, wraps and other goodies. I’m planning my trip as I write this.

Convenience store operators depend on frequency and total spend from certain consumer demographics. Interestingly, Millennials are the core customers when it comes to buying those non-gasoline items, but the mature market (especially Boomers) leads the way in -- wait for it -- coffee.

Recent industry surveys report that C-store shoppers over age 55 prefer convenience store coffee to that available at coffee shops, while those over 45 report buying dispensed hot coffee alone among all food and drink items. The industry has responded by upgrading their coffee service with large thermal dispensers and enhanced coffee bars – something that appeals to both matures and Millennials. Back to Sheetz for a second helping of examples: the chain also offers a full-service espresso and smoothie bar staffed by trained baristas. Today’s C-store has taken the tact of becoming a fresh food store that also happens to sell gas, rather than a gas station that also carries food.

Convenience stores successfully leverage a variety of marketing techniques, including in-store signage and promotions, exterior signage, TV and radio advertising, and online/social media ads, not to mention some great rewards programs. But interestingly, the C-store industry is ahead of the curve in terms of meeting various demographics on their terms. Witness the fact that those same groups are demanding more healthy/organic/natural products and accessing social media in record numbers. As a result, C-store operators are developing their prepared food and grocery offerings, as well as building their mobile and social networking presences – not only to communicate weekly specials, loyalty programs and store locations, but also to promote their philanthropic efforts, according to a recent report from industry trade CSPnet.com.

The C-store is truly one of those markets with cross-generational appeal. Brands that continue to offer convenience and good pricing, while communicating health and corporate responsibility, will resonate best with their customers. 

And let’s not forget good coffee.

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