Industry View: The Quest for ‘Convenience Plus’

Michelle Barry, President & CEO, Centric Brand Anthropology

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Today, we have convenience, and we love it. Life used to be pretty hard. You had to rub sticks together for fire. You had to gather and kill things to eat. People were around for a really long time before they could pop by the local convenience store for a drink or some emergency toilet paper. Fortunately for us, today we have a giant industrial apparatus, making for a wide availability of standardized goods. We’ve become extremely enthusiastic with respect to the kinds of conveniences that available to us. We love efficiency, technology and convenience, and our culture reflects it in many ways.

But now we want “convenience plus,” and there’s one big problem. Food culture has shifted in the United States over the past two decades in some very profound ways. We want new, different, interesting and better quality foods and beverages. However, our big apparatus of production, distribution and retailing still prefers uniform, commodity-like products, which are inexpensive and easy to manufacture, ship, and put on shelves. It’s difficult to break away from that system; it’s been around for a long time and has its own momentum, making it tempting for c-store operators to stick with things the way they are.

Convenience today is the same thing it was years ago: finding the products you want expediently, at the right place and time. However, today, the things that we want to find conveniently are different— we want the efficiencies of traditional convenience, and more.

Millennials as a Focus

Everyone is interested in millennials today. While it may be tempting to dismiss this group as a bunch of fickle, shiftless hipsters, they are at the forefront of today’s consumer trends, and by exploring their product preferences, we are really exploring where we, in general, are headed as consumers, as well as what c-stores should be poised to accommodate.

Like many consumers today, millennials have a hard time finding something they want to eat among “standard” foods in a c-store. They are accustomed to having a lot of interesting food options, but they don’t often see such options at c-stores. Compare growing up in the ’70s and ’80s vs. the ’90s and 2000s. Vast differences emerged in the U.S. food landscape.

Today there are Thai restaurants not just in every major city but in also in smaller ones (e.g., Danville, Ky., south of Lexington, has 16,000 people and 15 Thai restaurants). It stands to reason that millennials will find a “standard issue” hot dog with mustard pretty sleepy. They would, however, be interested in a hot dog done up like a Bahn Mi sandwich, with cilantro, carrots and other fresh additions. The table below summarizes in general terms what millennials, and most other consumers, are looking for.

Focus on Economy Focus on Experience
Predictable Interesting, sometimes surprising
More uniform Less uniform, quirky, playful
Standard issue Something special(ish), with notable quality cues

Where to Go from Here?

 ▶ Adding fresher, trendier options will go a long way. Something as simple as well-executed, fresh Mexican prepared foods (as some have done by partnering with QSRs) would make a difference. They are not exotic in terms of food interest but excel in freshness cues and help build quality impressions.

 ▶ Move away from utilitarian food and think more about playful, fun, sensual food experiences. We hesitate to use the word “sensual” because it may sound a little too “sexy” for a business audience, but it’s dead-on descriptive in this case. Food is increasingly about new and different experiences tickling the senses. Move beyond improvements to basic freshness and quality impressions and offer something “fun” (like the Bahn Mi hot dog we mentioned above, which, as a dressed-up hot dog, would be fairly simple to execute).

 ▶ Beverage choices could be better. Standard soft drinks may be fine for guys who work on lawn crews and teens making their own nutritional choices, but the rest of the population is looking for something else. There are a lot of interesting beverages available today, and unlike fresh foods, they don’t present a lot of operational difficulties and/or waste, so it’s an easy win.

In our next column, we will explore a very good example of a contemporized c-store, and explain why its various features appeal to today’s consumers.

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