CHICAGO — Fishing rods aren’t your typical core general merchandise item in a convenience store.
But the strange year of 2020 begat odd merchandising tendencies within the space. “We sold an inordinately high number of fishing poles in the spring and summer, as well as bait,” says Tim Young, category manager center store for Bardstown, Ky.-based Newcomb Oil Co.’s FiveStar Food Mart. “They were hot. We always carried [fishing accessories] but expanded space in 2020 as more people took up fishing. Last year it was vital to have an outlet like that.”
Products such as fishing accessories, puzzles and games have become part of the core selection within general merchandise due to the pandemic. Of course, personal protection equipment (PPE) remains a prevailing need, as well, encompassing masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and more. Convenience chains have stepped up to accommodate the ongoing needs.
Franklin, Tenn.-based MAPCO Express felt a need to commit to the hand sanitizer, masks and other PPE.
“This our new normal at this point, and will be going forward,” says Kelley Gutierrez, category manager of candy and snacks, Mapco Express Inc., who previously oversaw general merchandise at the chain and maintains an indirect role with fellow Category Manager Damian Wyatt.
“We became a destination for hand sanitizer because once the word got out that MAPCO Express had it, people came to us for it.
“The innovation you see with masks are ones embossed with patterns, displays of three-packs and kids’ versions, which have all offered us incremental growth. And you will see this continue beyond when people are not required to wear masks,” says Gutierrez, named CSP’s 2021 Category Manager of the Year Award winner for Center Store.
Early on in the pandemic, hand sanitizer became hard to find, and Gutierrez worked with “every supplier in my address book to source products,” she says. “We sourced large gallon-size bottles, which allowed our customers to buy in bulk. This allowed an employer to buy from us and dispense product to their own employees. Families also bought hand sanitizer in bulk packages. We also brought in hand sanitizer spray for folks wanting it instead of the gel.”
With Wyatt taking the lead, MAPCO worked with a manufacturer-partner to develop a private-label hand sanitizer. “We became a destination for hand sanitizer because once the word got out that MAPCO Express had it, people came to us for it. Word traveled fast. And it projected the MAPCO brand as caring about the community.”
Non-PPE related products that were consumer priorities due to the pandemic included board and card games to facilitate family leisure activities, says Gutierrez. “The novelty toy subcategory was up for us, too. We saw people recognizing MAPCO for various day-to-day needs, such as phone cables and chargers. It was more than the portable ones for vehicles but as folks wore out home cables, they would come to our stores for 10-foot versions.”
This change to consumer habits continues into 2021, as reflected by the way typical core category products fared. General merchandise and health and beauty care (HBC) items, such as beach-related products, sun tan/sunscreen lotions and more, all lost velocity as fewer people vacationed. As people drove less, auto-related accessories like motor oil and windshield wiper solution also struggled.
Sales of other HBC products, such as analgesics, cough drops, allergy relief, stomach relief and others, were flat for full-year 2020 within convenience, according to Chicago-based IRI, reflecting consumer vigilance through shelter-in-place lifestyles.
At Long Beach, Calif.-based United Pacific, Robyn Gettleson, category manager of snacks and candy, found that sales of games and puzzles “were very brisk, largely to keep kids occupied at home,” she says.
Back at FiveStar, Young says he saw sales of fishing rods peak around Memorial Day, with some shoppers perhaps driven inside by a need for COVID basics such as masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
“People who did not truly shop convenience in the past, … it was an eye opener for them” to see what a local c-store offered in a broad way, he says. “The c-store’s per-visit shop could be done in less than five minutes, and people started to think about this more often.”