Convenience stores switch focus during pandemic

Many convenience store operators have temporarily suspended their self-serve coffee stations. Image courtesy of RaceTrac.

Covid-19 has impacted all facets of life for people and companies in more than 200 countries. People and businesses have had to quickly switch gears, evolve and acclimate to entirely new ways of living and operating.

For example, the Covid-19 epidemic has devastated the foodservice industry. Many foodservice operators like coffeehouses, cafés and restaurants were forced to close completely if they did not have drive-thrus or take out/curbside pick-up or delivery options were not viable. The convenience store channel is an interesting one because although “c-stores” are retailers, many are foodservice operators as well. Many c-stores have altered their business models in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. Convenience stores traditionally sell immediate consumption items – 83% of all products sold at a store are consumed within an hour – but they have pivoted to providing items that can be brought home, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

NACS, the trade association that represents the more than 152,000 convenience and fuel retailers in the United States, reports that as a result of the crisis, convenience retailers (52%) say they have seen an increase in sales of grocery staples as customers are increasingly turning to their local convenience store for pantry items. Findings from a national survey conducted by Alexandria, Virginia-based NACS, released 1 April, revealed that convenience stores are offering more at-home products: 52% are adding more cleaning/toiletry items, 31% are emphasising ready-to-heat meals, 28% are offering more multi-pack/bulk items — which benefits roasters and tea manufacturers as more consumers are now preparing coffee and tea at home rather than purchasing them at coffeehouses and cafés.

The survey also found that c-stores have dramatically scaled back self-serve foodservice and restaurant functions but are offering new programs to allow social distancing and to enhance convenience (It’s important to note that many c-stores are open 24/7, 365 days per year in the US, but due to the pandemic, nearly two in three retailers (60%) say they have reduced store operating hours, due to less customer traffic or to deep clean and restock during overnight hours.):

  • 66% have closed public seating and dining areas (These percentages reflect retailers who have made changes; many operators do not have dining areas, for instance.);
  • 45% have removed customer access to self-serve foodservice like coffee, fountain drinks and bakery items;
  • 14% are offering some sort of curbside pickup program;
  • 13% have increased a focus on drive-thru, and;
  • 11% have added or increased delivery options.

A spokesperson for NACS noted that with regards to c-store members removing the self-service option, for some retailers this means moving the self-serve coffee behind the counter so that an employee can serve the customer. For others with extended prepared foodservice programs, this means continuing barista services via touchscreen ordering. Retailers are taking every precaution to remove the risk of potential contamination.

For example, effective 23 March, Altoona, Pennsylvania-based Sheetz temporarily suspended its self-service coffee offerings. Customers who would like to purchase a cup of coffee are invited to use the touch-screen order points or ask an employee for assistance who can then serve coffee to them. Additionally, Sheetz also temporarily suspended all self-service beverages including fountain beverages, fresh brewed tea, frozen drinks and F’Real milkshakes. They continue to offer a variety of drinks in their coolers.

Convenience stores also are supporting medical/healthcare personnel and first responders: Nearly half (49%) of survey respondents are supporting these heroes in their communities by offering free beverages and steep discounts on food, delivering free meals to local hospitals and firehouses, providing free fuel for critical community groups that provide school lunch deliveries, donating product to food banks and other programs, and supplying masks and other supplies to emergency and healthcare professionals.

“We have always supported first responders with coffee and the like to help them through their shifts,” said Douglas Dean with 76/Circle K (Tamuning, Guam), in a statement provided to NACS.

Wawa, based in Wawa, Pennsylvania began providing all health care workers and first responders with free coffee to “fuel their shifts during this crisis” as of 26th March.

Atlanta, Georgia-based RaceTrac stated on its website: “Because essential businesses and the people who staff them are so critical to our communities, RaceTrac is extending its longstanding policy of free ‘Crazy Good’ coffee and fountain beverages [small size] for First Responders in uniform. Now included are all essential workers from doctors to support staff as well as truck drivers who keep the supply chain operating. Since not all these workers wear a uniform, an ID badge is an acceptable form of identification.”

And, retailers surveyed also stressed the importance of their teams serving customers. Nearly one in three (32%) said that employee conversations, no matter however brief, were the most effective means of communications to tell people about their pandemic response activities.

“It’s critical that we let our employees know we appreciate the fact they helped us hold our company together,” said Kim Robello with Minit Stop Markets (Kahului, Hawaii).

Hopefully, many coffeehouses and cafés can learn from c-stores’ initiatives amid Covid-19 and try to adapt their business to a model that best suits them as well as their consumers during the crisis.

To read the full survey results, visit: convenience.org/NACSQ2RetailerSurvey.

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