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The World Has Already Changed

The c-store industry, always on the front lines of consumer life, is helping to set the stage for the post-coronavirus economy
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CHICAGO — Like everyone else, while I shelter in place from COVID-19, I’ve been looking for ways to stay entertained. For me, that means raiding my collection of Universal monster and Godzilla movies and other old sci-fi and horror screen gems. With that in mind, I had an epiphany of sorts about what we’ve been through these past weeks and what we could be headed for soon as the world grapples with the changes the virus brings. In an effort to refrain from apocalyptic prognostication, I strive for optimism. One thing is clear, however: The world has already changed.

C-stores in many areas have long functioned as local gathering places for news and information and places to meet for coffee and human interaction. And they have long supported charities and causes at the local and national levels. CSP Daily News on a monthly basis covers the charitable initiatives of c-store retailers and suppliers.

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Over the past couple of years, the convenience-retailing industry has been focused on disruption, primarily from e-commerce. While once a worrisome phenomenon, it had already also become a buzzword, mostly devoid of punch. Little did we know that true disruption on a massive scale was just around the corner in the form of a virus, and what would be required of us to help minimize the danger. Social distancing and sheltering in place have now entered our daily vocabulary.

As it turns out, we've been increasingly practicing these isolation techniques for years as digital media has proliferated. Even though we didn't know it, we were already preparing ourselves for quarantine. Technology has allowed many of us to work from home, partially or completely. And many consumers have been getting food, groceries and entertainment delivered to their domiciles for a while now. On a store level, frictionless technology is beginning to spread beyond Amazon Go and into the arsenal of more traditional retailers, enabled by other cutting-edge providers.

So-called “just walk out” technology, which so far has not become a major threat to traditional retail, might as well be called social distancing technology. Will the new habits of coronavirus culture cause its acceptance to accelerate?

This new reality will be a boon to social media and digital interaction, too, as they further establish themselves as the primary channels of communication—this time for a reason, as the nation and the world shelters in place. C-store and other retailers are already moving to social media as a preferred way to interact with customers outside the store, including for promotions and press. Now virtual trade shows, web conferences and other industry forums are popping up to replace the canceled or postponed events.

Even as gasoline demand declines because people aren’t going anywhere, they still need food, drinks and fuel. Those are necessities the industry has been providing for years and will continue to do so, even as it accommodates consumer lifestyle changes as well as the growth in popularity of electric vehicles and other alternative fuels.

The c-store industry has tried, quite successfully, to stay on top of all of these changes and trends. The coronavirus, as serious of a threat as it is, is just another challenge that will change but not destroy the business of convenience.

It’s clear from the needs of people struggling to navigate the strange new rules of the coronavirus culture that convenience and fuel retailers and industry suppliers—as a key part of the nation’s essential infrastructure—are playing a big role in seeing people and their communities through this unprecedented situation. C-store retailers are already anticipating the in-store employment needs that are being felt as staffing fluctuates during the crisis. And the retailers will have a big hand in helping people pick up the pieces when better times return.

As an industry, we need to ask ourselves: How do we want to be remembered when the crisis is over? Strengthening ties to the community will pay off in goodwill, customer loyalty and traffic when the crisis has abated. The industry will have boosted and enhanced its reputation in the community and the economy. Responsible retailers have always recognized this, and those that are not responsible—reports of price gouging of goods and gasoline are emerging—those predators, those exceptions don’t need to define how the industry met the crisis.

Beyond the c-store industry, a silver lining in all of this, once we come out the other side—and regardless of politics, party or ideology—is an opportunity to create a society with more emphasis on health and well-being, education, family and social and community service and less on sports, entertainment and making money. There's nothing wrong with sports, entertainment or commerce, but they have almost become religions in our society and need to be restored to a proper societal perspective. We need more doctors, nurses, caregivers, teachers, researchers, first responders and public servants—and, yes, responsible retailers, suppliers and truckers to feed and fuel them.

Now, what should I watch tonight? How about Vincent Price in "The Last Man on Earth"?

Greg Lindenberg is an editor for CSP and CSP Daily News. He has been writing about the convenience-store, gas-station and petroleum industries for more than a quarter of a century. Contact him at glindenberg@winsightmedia.com.

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