Are Convenience Stores Pandemic-Proof?

C-stores must prepare for the worst while remaining open during COVID-19
Lou Perrine’s Gas & Groceries
Photo Courtesy of Lou Perrine’s Gas & Groceries

CHICAGO — The coronavirus pandemic has gutted the U.S. foodservice industry, forcing restaurants to halt dine-in services as grocery and convenience retailers have curtailed their foodservice operations.

Yet despite the slowdown, convenience stores are surviving—and some are even flourishing.

Many convenience-store operators have experienced sales increases of as much as 5% during the coronavirus outbreak, depending on the part of the country and type of market, according to CSP interviews with a dozen c-store executives at chains across the country. In the past week alone, several c-store chains have introduced emergency action plans (EAPs) to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in their stores and communities while remaining open.

For example, the staff at Lou Perrine’s Gas & Groceries, Kenosha, Wis., practices social distancing by filling customers’ gas tanks at the pump and bringing all items—aside from liquor and beer—out to their cars for no extra fee. For customers who don’t want to leave their homes, Lou Perrine’s has eliminated its delivery fees. The company has also boosted its sanitation efforts, requiring every employee—whether they are counting money or serving food—to wear latex gloves and clean the restrooms and countertops every half-hour.

“The only way I close is if I don't have employees to work with me or if the government tells me to,” Anthony Perrine, owner of Lou Perrine’s, told CSP Daily News. “I'm going to ride this out until the very end.”

On March 19, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed the c-store industry a critical workforce infrastructure, saying it has “a special responsibility to maintain its normal work schedule.” This means that, for the time being, c-stores will remain open.

But staying open also increases the risk of exposure, making EAPs crucial to any operator who’s running business as usual.

Taking Action

There are three types of EAPs c-store operators should create during a crisis: a midterm or short-term plan, an exit strategy and an entrance plan, Jessica Williams, founder and CEO of c-store consultancy Food Forward Thinking LLC, Louisville, Ky., told CSP Daily News.

“Having multiple plans in place and communicating these strategies to employees, vendors and customers is essential,” Williams said.

Short-term plans—such as Perrine’s pump-side service—help operators keep sales and business operations afloat during a crisis. In the case of COVID-19, developing a short-term plan may include boosting in-store marketing and promotions, bringing products to guests at the pump, using online or order-ahead capabilities, catering and enhancing sanitation efforts throughout the store.

In a complete shutdown, exit strategies require operators to first and foremost consider what they’ll do with unexpired food and ingredients—either disposing or donating them, Williams said. Moreover, sanitation efforts must be moved up to earlier in the day and practiced more often than during the midterm plan, so the entire store is disinfected upon returning.

That leads to the entrance strategy, which requires more tedious planning for when the smoke clears. Developing this plan includes monitoring auto-replenish orders; adjusting food and supply orders; reeducating sick or absent employees on food prep and other operations; and leveraging buying power of overstocked and near-expired frozen foods, Williams said.

“Operators would need a plan for returning to work,” she said. “Who knows how many habits, systems or products would have changed by the time they’d be back.”

Williams encourages c-store operators to look at the positives of the pandemic. The slowdown may allow them to focus on employee training for food preparation and cleaning and other certifications, she said. Also, operators can use this period to test new menus items and craft menu labeling information.

Staying Alive

Even with EAPs in place, there’s no guarantee that c-stores will remain open during the pandemic. But for now, a government-mandated shutdown for convenience stores seems unlikely, Perrine said, because gas stations are a place for customers to “grab the essentials,” such as paper towels, toilet paper, laundry detergent and automotive fluid.

Nonetheless, the likelihood of c-store shutdowns increases if employees fall ill or become concerned enough with the virus to stay home, he said.

“[Employees] may say, ‘This is too risky right now, and we might not be busy enough, so we're going to close down,’ ” he said.

Only time will tell when the COVID-19 situation will end. Until then, c-store operators must take every precaution in ensuring their environment is safe for customers and employees.

Perrine has taken another drastic measurein doing so: sleeping on-site.

“I have an air mattress in my back office,” he said. “I am going to be here now more than ever. I want [my team and customers] knowing, ‘I have your back. I'm here with you. If you go down, I go down.’ ”

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