Scaling C-Stores in a Post-Pandemic World

The pandemic very clearly shifted consumers to online shopping in higher numbers than ever before. But it also shifted in-person shopping behaviors, including a mix of larger, stock-up trips to stores, as well as quicker, fill-in trips, which benefitted c-stores.
In the past c-stores have been fairly recession-proof since their product offering is so varied, but a primary challenge during the pandemic has been a decrease in travel and foot traffic as people were encouraged to work from home, leading to a 9% decrease in foodservice sales in 2020, according to Mintel.
Though recovery for c-stores may take years, they can use the insights from the past few years to pivot toward growth areas that consumers have been actively seeking from these businesses. We look at four opportunities that c-stores should pursue to amplify growth in the post-pandemic years.

Healthier Foods Options
While affordability and convenience of location remain important to c-store shoppers, healthy food options continue to rise in value to consumers, especially for the younger generations who view nutrition as a lifestyle choice. A study from the NACS found that 68% of Americans would visit their favorite c-store more often if it offered healthy sandwiches and salads, while 63% said the same about fruits and vegetables.

But while consumers want to eat healthier, the in-store experience may to guide them. C-stores can amplify healthier choices by applying favorable shelf placement and optimizing visual marketing cues to steer consumers toward these choices and increase profits.

Private Label 
Private label brands were popular with consumers before the pandemic, but sales increased by 16.6% in the first quarter of 2020. C-stores have been serving as a valuable contributor to the trend, gaining market share in 12 of the last 18 pre-Covid quarters.

Now, private labels appear to hold significant influence on consumer shopping habits, with a Kantar survey finding that 66% of shoppers agreeing that if they trust a retailer then they assume their private-label products will be good.
7-Eleven built on that trust by creating two distinct private label brands: first its 7-Select in 2008, followed by 24/7 LIFE in 2019, which was created to distinguish the marketing of nonfood items. By pivoting toward its private label program, 7-Eleven reached $1B in private label brand sales by March 2021.

C-stores can capitalize on the trust they’ve established during the pandemic and the popularity of private labels by innovating and differentiating to meet consumer expectations. 

Delivery and Mobile 
As early as 2018, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing found that 52% of customers who frequent c-stores expressed an interest in technology that would allow them to order food or drinks via a smartphone app. With the pandemic two years later, this has become the new reality, as interest in mobile payments and mobile app orders increased 12-13% between March and June 2020, particularly with younger age groups.
Consumers are increasingly looking to mobile apps to take them through the buying journey—ordering, pick-up, and purchase—as it limits the contact they have with other patrons, employees, and additional touchscreens. But US c-stores still struggle with the “last mile” fulfillment, which covers delivery, pick-up, or curbside services.

According to the NACS, less than half of North American c-stores offer these services, compared to more than 80% of Australian and European c-stores. With the increased use of mobile for ordering, the last mile is crucial for increasing sales and preserving customer loyalty.
While mobile and delivery options have been essential safety measures against Covid, they are also valuable investments for meeting consumer needs in the short-term while boosting long-term revenue streams. 

Contactless and Drive-Thru Service
While consumers acclimated to contactless options for safety reasons during the pandemic, they’re now more reliant on contactless because of its speed and convenience. As a result, some c-store chains are amplifying their contactless capabilities, such as 7-Eleven testing its contactless checkout process, which allows customers to pay using the 7Now mobile app. 
A recent Mobiquity survey found that 44% of consumers were more likely to purchase from a c-store with curbside than one without, making drive-thru and curbside features an essential way to speed up service and build customer loyalty. Wawa had plans to implement drive-thrus even before the Covid-19 pandemic, finding that it simplified operational efficiency, saved on labor costs, and improve back-of-house operations.

While this structure may not be the right fit for every market, and consumers are still warming up to check-out free solutions, c-stores should invest in contactless shopping methods that will meet consumer demands for fast, frictionless service—both now and in the future.
The investments that c-stores make today are reactions to a rapidly evolving market, with consumers seeking solutions that are fast, frictionless, contactless, and convenient. But the lifestyle changes and consumer habits developed during the pandemic are likely here to stay, so investments in technology and other innovations should be considered long-term investments for sustainable revenue and success.