GLENDALE, Ariz.-- “Industry trends are evolving at a breakneck speed,” Abbie Westra, director of content for Winsight and editor-in-chief of CSP magazine, told the audience of c-store retailers and suppliers at Winsight’s Convenience Retailing University (CRU). “And more than ever before, it’s the consumer who is driving your next move.”
Westra gave an update on Winsight’s 10 big c-store trends for the year during her State of the Industry session that began this year’s CRU, held Feb. 21-23 in Glendale, Ariz. She also set the stage for the rest of the conference with a business outlook on the year to come and an analysis of what’s trending in the core c-store categories.
Read on for an update on the big trends of the year, and how they’re pacing toward massive industry disruption.
1. 7-Eleven vs. Couche-Tard: The battle for supremacy
Trend: Convenience behemoths 7-Eleven and Alimentation Couche-Tard will continue to fight for U.S. store-count supremacy into 2018.
Update: “Both made some major acquisitions in the past year, and we expect to see more on the horizon,” Westra said. “But they aren’t the only acquirers out there consolidating a very fractured industry. We’re seeing a lot of activity among midsized chains, as well as small chains and indies who are able to pick up assets being shed from the bigger deals.”
2. RIP MLPs, welcome VC and PE
Trend: Venture capital and private equity have been replacing master limited partnerships (MLPs) as the engines driving M&A in the industry, and this trend is poised to continue.
Update: “The MLPs that made headlines in recent years continue to take the backseat to private equity and venture capital,” said Westra. “And we’re seeing activity from more traditional players and investors that actually have some c-store history and retailing acumen.
“We did a very unscientific count of M&A activity that’s crossed our desks at CSP since Jan. 1, including sales that finally closed such as 7-Eleven’s acquisition of Sunoco, and just announced deals like Kroger’s c-store sale to EG Group. We identified nearly 2,000 stores changing hands in some form in the past eight weeks. That’s remarkable and, of course, sends reverberations to all corners of the industry.”
3. Regulation frustration
Trend: With a gridlocked Washington and an executive agenda aimed at granting more power to states, c-stores should look out for legislation being hurled at them from different directions.
Update: “Tobacco, soda and minimum wage are just three of the biggest areas seeing lots of activity—particularly at the state and local level, where things move very, very quickly,” said Westra. “Suddenly, retailers are having to be activists, fighting for their ability to do business and creating playbooks on how to be heard.”
“One area to keep your eyes on is paid leave and scheduling legislation, which is likewise moving to state and local governing bodies,” Westra said.
4. Employee benefits get personal
Trend: In this historically snug labor market, convenience stores are finding innovative ways to directly connect with team members.
Update: Westra pointed to the growth of customizable benefits such as personalized career ladders, relaxed dress codes, microlearning, referral bonuses and more.
“We need to be putting as much diligence toward attracting the best people for behind the counter as we do attracting people on the shopper side,” said Westra. “Because remember: They are the same person.”
5. Battle of the ‘last mile’ becomes war for the ‘last block’
Trend: With disruption from e-commerce and delivery pressing down on the industry, the last mile has become the last block—and, in some cases, the last 100 feet.
Update: According to Technomic’s On Demand Delivery Study, third-party delivery spending is up 23% in the year ending third-quarter 2017 and the average spend has increased to $32. Delivery can also sway the dining decision: Just 16% rank the restaurant brand as their primary consideration when deciding where to order.
“The big deciding factor for c-stores, whether it’s third-party or in-house delivery, is what the breakeven is based on our transaction sizes—which are notably smaller than grocery or mass merchandisers, who are all trying to figure it out themselves,” said Westra. “What’s going to make delivery a worthwhile investment?”
6. The race to own EV
Trend: As more mass-market electric cars hit the streets in 2018, expect the race to become the preferred charging solution to ramp up. Homes, shopping malls and offices will likely still reign as preferred charging sites, but c-stores will have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making equation.
Update: Citing a panel of auto-industry and fuel experts who spoke at CSP’s Outlook Leadership conference last fall, Westra warned attendees not to think of forecourt disruption as a linear event. “Disruption is going to happen at the confluence of EV, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles. Those trends are going to trip over one another until they eventually merge,” she said. "The question is, who will own those fleets of self-driving, electric vehicles, and where will they charge up? If I have a fleet, I'll probably have my own charging facility."
7. and 8. The rise of big brother and robots
Trends: The future is already here, with Amazon Go plunging an unsuspecting industry into a possible cashier-free reality. Beyond the technology that’s already in use on a limited scale, new gadgets are arriving with facial-recognition capabilities that could one day be used for payment across all retail environments. Meanwhile, robots probably aren't going to take over convenience stores, at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean certain back-office or administrative tasks won’t be automated.
Update: Amazon Go is now open to the public, and reports in late February indicated the company may open as many as six more stores this year. But Amazon doesn’t own the market on frictionless or automated retailing, Westra pointed out, and many other service providers are working on their own technology that would be available to any retailer with the mission to use it.
9. and 10. Grocery and foodservice rise
Trends: Fresh produce, meat and grocery items are showing a lot of upside in terms of attracting new customers, as well as boosting the market baskets of even the heaviest convenience users. Meanwhile, angling for space in the meal-kit revolution, c-stores are beginning to reposition away from mere in-and-out convenience and more fully into the consumers’ consideration set for quick, high-quality meals at home.
Update: When Technomic asked c-store consumers what category they hoped c-stores would focus on in the year to come, grocery came in at No. 1. “Grocery is not a new category for the industry, but the specific opportunity is definitely different. What does the fill-in grocery occasion mean to the millennial dad or mom? How does c-store-as-superette fit into the migration back to city centers and more walkable suburbs and towns?”
As for foodservice, Westra urged attendees to think beyond craveability when building a foodservice offering. “We cannot afford to focus on craveability alone. You have to be a solution to today’s consumer. You must solve a problem.”