For the coming year, 48% of retailers expect some improvement and 4% great improvement in business conditions, with just 15% anticipating some decline and 27% who said they expect conditions will remain the same.

Sales have improved slightly at the six-location Last Minit Mart c-store chain, New Castle, Pennsylvania, said Jeff Taylor, director of stores. Taylor expects more improvement to come for two reasons, one of which is the reopening of a store after a two-month remodel.

“Our sales and item-per-transaction counts are up over last year,” he said.

The other reason is a fuel strategy of pricing below big-name competitors, which results in more traffic and more customers entering Last Minit Mart stores to make purchases. Coupled with this are promotions to boost sales.

For example, after noticing that some foodservice purchases include a candy bar, Taylor staged candy shippers in the foodservice area to prompt impulse buys.

Improved store traffic is also spurred by more students back in school since the pandemic and traffic patterns reemerging in early-afternoon hours, said Kristina Anderson, chief service officer of Midwest Petroleum Corp., a Manchester, Missouri-based chain of 56 stores.

“Everybody keeps waiting for things to go back to the way that they were before COVID,” she said. “They’re not going to. I believe that this is our new normal. We have to continue to build a new set of tools in order to operate in this environment.”

Those new tools include a fresh approach to shrinkage, including rethinking how to display items prone to theft, she said.

In terms of technology, each generation has different preferences, Anderson said. Once at an airport, she said her teenage son wanted to buy lunch with friends. When she asked if he had his wallet, he said he didn’t need it—he had Apple Pay on his phone.

“It dawned on me in that moment that if we don’t lean into the way young adults receive money and the way they spend money, we’re going to be left in the dust behind other retailers,” she said.

This also includes payment options at fuel pumps.

“My 15-year-old will be driving next year,” she said. “How will he fuel his car when he gets one?…We have to figure that out with the apps of the future, not just with the payment apps that they’re using now, but what are they going to be using in 10, 15 years?”

One substantive change Last Minit Mart plans is to add video gaming terminals in truck stops, a move made possible when Pennsylvania recently legalized them.

“We have three stores that qualify as such,” Taylor said, adding that he hopes the first will be operational in the coming weeks.

Whatever technology a retailer launches, it must be easy to use and conducive to a store’s foodservice program, Anderson said.

“We need to be clear if we take cash at these kiosks, and the instructions should not be difficult to navigate. I’ve seen a lot of small children helping their grandparents and great-grandparents use this technology,” she said.

Anderson is a fan of self-checkout, though. It’s not taking away jobs, which is a common pushback, she said.

“It’s making people more efficient in the roles they’re in,” she said.