What Consumer Habits Will Survive the Pandemic?

Wawa CEO: Some will fade, but lasting ones will involve last-mile services
Curbside pickup
Illustration by Nathan Hackett

CHICAGO As convenience stores exit the pandemic, the degree to which consumers continue habits learned since March 2020 will play a factor in how these businesses evolve.

So says Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens in a recent topics-spanning Talks From the Top session hosted by Mitch Morrison, Winsight vice president of retailer relations.

The bulk of those habits revolve around last-mile serviceshome delivery, curbside pickup, in-store pickup—and customer expectations.

“You are really playing in an Amazon-like game. Can you win that? And what strategies will win because Amazon and others are moving quickly to this last mile,” Gheysens said. “It’ll be interesting to see the ‘stickiness’ of some consumer behavior.”

For instance, Gheysens asked, how important will a fulfillment center be after the pandemic? “Things like the lockers, whether they’re for food or for packages, third party or not, whether you’re fulfilling your products or whether you’re looking outside your ecosystem and even trying to bring more convenience to your customers by fulfilling other high-need, high-frequency products, whether through delivery or at your store,” he said.

“All of that said, the notion of convenience is changing," he said. "It used to be put up a big price sign at the corner of Main and Main and people stopped, and you’d intercept three of four people going between point A and point B.”

But this won’t be the full extent of convenience, which will take on new meaning, Gheysens said, and there will be a blurring from what Amazon, Instacart and others have done. Customers are becoming more used to the evolving definition of “convenience” and will look for c-store products like that, Gheysens said. But in terms of the digital and customer experiences, “we’re not as protected or insulated as we might think,” he said.

  • Click here to watch the entire Talks From the Top discussion with Chris Gheysens and Mitch Morrison, part of CRU Community content.

One way c-stores have been protecting themselves is by accelerating new ideas to survive during the pandemic, Gheysens said. Many plans Wawa had in its playbook for the next few years, such as implementing delivery, have helped during the pandemic.

“I would love to tell you we brought a lot of new stuff that we created, but we were a little bit lucky and a lot of bit lucky,” he said.

Delivery at Wawa was under way at the beginning of 2020 with just one third party in about 100 stores; however, by the end of 2020, the urgency brought on by the pandemic had Wawa using four third parties in all of its 900-plus stores.

“And we expanded the assortment from just food items to just about everything in our stores,” Gheysens said. “Curbside was a big need that the team pivoted to. We had a lot of debate, but COVID made us lessen debates and jump in and make decisions more quickly.”

At test stores, Wawa had employees in parking lots taking orders with point-of-sale devices, Gheysens said. This was in response to a group of customers still afraid to come into stores but who wanted their Wawa experienceand for whom placing a delivery order was too technical.

But staging employees in parking lots quickly became too cumbersome and complex, so Wawa instead got its mobile app up and running.

“So I would tell you between mobile, delivery, curbside and making investments, pretty quickly, pretty boldly, we accelerated some things that were in the works," he said, "and I think that’s going to make Wawa a better company. Some of those trends will lessen post-COVID, but they are not going away.”

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