Despite what you may have heard, millennials—my generation—are not to blame for the failure of once well-established industries.
Consider this recent story in The Washington Post titled, “The baffling reason many millennials don’t eat cereal.” It asserted that millennials are too lazy to eat cereal because “it’s inconvenient,” and cited research from Mintel that 40% of millennials said cereal was problematic because they don’t want to clean it up. This is an undeniably startling statistic, but there’s much more behind the topic than this single data point.
Another story, from Business Insider, declares, “Millennials are killing chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s.” The article blamed the malaise of these casual-dining chains on millennials’ preference to cook more meals at home, either with food bought from the grocery store or through meal kits such as Blue Apron.
If both articles are taken at face value, it means that we millennials are too lazy to wash our cereal bowls in the morning and too cheap to have meals made for us at night.
It’s also an understandable reaction to the decline of these industries. Suddenly, strategies that these businesses have relied on for decades to attract and retain consumers aren’t working. These articles incorrectly conclude that because millennials don’t follow the behaviors of past generations of consumers, there’s something wrong with us.
Any business owner who adopts this attitude is setting themselves up for failure. It is an excuse to disparage and place blame on a powerful group of consumers. This is especially true for convenience stores. Millennials make up 51% of c-store customers, according to Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics. Like it or not, our preferences cannot be ignored or brushed of as laziness.
The Real Threat
When Gray Taylor, executive director of technology standards group Conexxus, Alexandria, Va., presented at the Pinnacle Summit in June, he spent very little time talking about competition from restaurants. I mean, hey, millennials are killing them anyway, so what’s to worry about, right?
Instead, he discussed direct-to-consumer concepts such as GoPuff , the Austin, Texas-based startup Couch Potato and, of course, Amazon. Taylor warned that these innovators are redefining convenience and, unless the c-store industry does more to own that space, it will eventually become obsolete. And just who is using these services? You guessed it: millennials. A recent survey from Yes Lifecycle Marketing suggests millennials make purchases from Amazon at a higher rate than any other age group. In fact, 79% of those surveyed had made an Amazon purchase in the past month.
“We don’t have to explain why we can’t compete with Amazon online,” said Taylor, “but we will have to explain why we can’t compete with them on brick-and-mortar.”
C-stores have largely been insulated from the seismic shifts in the retail sector, but that will not last indefinitely. Once Amazon’s “just walk out” payment technology in pilot at Amazon Go becomes widespread, consumers, especially millennials, will expect that level of service from any retail experience.
Consumer-direct concepts such as Amazon aren’t the only tech-related danger for c-stores. Experts across industries and backgrounds agree that the rise of the electric vehicle (EV) is inevitable. This change will not happen overnight, but the likelihood of EVs’ mass adoption is high. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts battery-powered cars and gas-electric plug-in hybrids could make up more than half of all vehicles sold by 2040.
Once adoption becomes more widespread, many EV drivers will not automatically travel to c-stores to recharge their cars. Many will choose to recharge at home instead. They will have to be convinced that traveling to a c-store is the better choice. And millennials and Gen Z are likely to lead the charge toward the widespread use of EVs.
Granted, this shift in consumer preferences will affect different c-stores in different ways. Many stores are community hubs that regulars will continue to visit whether or not technology advances. Stores along highways will benefit from bathrooms. After all, even travelers driving EVs have to pee.
Even so, every consumer, not just millennials, is always looking for a cheaper and more convenient option when shopping for anything. Does your store offer the most convenient option? Will it still be the most convenient option in 10 years? Unless we ask ourselves these questions now, our industry will irrevocably change with or without us.
We should make sure we’re along for the ride by keeping track of changing consumer preferences. And yes, that includes millennials.
Jackson Lewis is CSP’s technology editor and a little defensive. Reach him at email@example.com.