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Opinion: Can’t C-Stores Just Disrupt Themselves?

Reebok joins the club of industry disruption hopefuls

CHICAGO -- Convenience-store retailers are not unaccustomed to outliers playing with their business model, the model itself an amalgam of many eras of industries folding into one another. (Gas and milk? A match made in retail heaven.)

But lately, it feels like c-stores are on some not-so-secret list floating around business schools of industries most ripe for disruption, and everyone from athletic brands to convicted money launderers to Silicon Valley workers with the munchies wants in on the opportunity to upend c-stores as we know them. Is there a TED Talk about c-stores we don’t know about? A Harvard Business Review article?

The latest company trying c-stores on for size is athletic wear maker Reebok, who partnered with global design firm Gensler to reimagine convenience stores and gas stations as "fitness hubs," or "fuel stations for our bodies." It pointed to the ongoing decline in fuel consumption and the growth in electric-vehicle sales as an opportunity to “recycle” c-stores as places to exercise, connect with the community and access healthy foods while charging your car.

The CSP edit team felt some very visceral reactions to the release. It started with an “Uhhh,” quickly followed by a “Huh!” and then an eventual “Huh?”

We’re getting used to declarations by outsiders who see the industry as a killer network of real estate that, while not getting drastically pummeled by e-commerce, nonetheless is in need of critical evolution in the next 20 to 30 years. In an era of extreme disruption, we’re perceived as juicy prey too slow to get away.

Who is going to ultimately disrupt our industry? Will it be Reebok with its better-for-you utopia? Tesla and its leader’s quips at charging-stations-cum-drive-in-restaurants? Jerry Guess (who has recently revived his Guess Corp.) and his “vision” of country-club convenience stores? Or will it happen from within, from the c-store industry’s own forward-thinkers?

Disruption from outside forces could actually be great for our industry. That’s not the concern. The fear is that this thing called disruption bypasses our industry and its bevy of expertise and knowledge on its way toward “whatever’s next,” leaving us in the dust. We need to be part of what’s next, not just a case study for business schools to dissect or brands to write blogs about.

In fact, let’s take it one step further. Let’s disrupt other industries, particularly in the tech and services space. Retailers’ merger-and-acquisition (M&A) hit lists should go beyond just other convenience retailers. It’s what Walmart is doing, what Amazon is doing, and evidentially what Reebok is attempting—even if just as a marketing blip.

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