CHICAGO — The COVID-19 pandemic forced many retailers to holistically rethink store plan-o-grams, and in many cases, general merchandise suddenly took on a new level of importance. For many, this center store staple is undergoing a transformation that may have staying power.
Gone or scaled back are once permanent or seasonal merchandise such as souvenirs, T-shirts, caps, beachballs and batteries. In their place are masks, sanitary gloves, hand wipes and bottled sanitizers—plus a robust array of paper products.
The shift makes sense, as consumers plan to buy personal protective equipment (PPE)-oriented items like never before. Acosta, a sales and marketing agency in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, for example, revealed in a COVID-19 shopper insights series that 53% of consumers plan to stock up on these products if another economic shutdown occurs.
“As COVID cases continue to rise, most shoppers believe we’re headed for another shutdown, and [they] plan to respond accordingly. So retailers should be prepared for a new surge in stocking up,” says Darian Pickett, CEO of North American Sales at Acosta, Jacksonville, Fla. “Hand sanitizer, masks and gloves will be the most in-demand items, and many will opt for online shopping and delivery options.”
To capitalize and even nullify e-commerce, the opportunity to reimage c-store general merchandise is critical, all underpinned by integrated price, promotion and display tactics.
“This year, consumers have maintained focus on availability of items, with less focus on specific channel purchases,” says Jennifer Hutto, manager of merchandising at McLane Co., Temple, Texas. This gives convenience retailers an opportunity to step up and deliver better.
Re-Imagining a Category
The opportunity to improve share of PPE products from e-commerce or other brick-and-mortar channels will require at least a three-step process, according to channel experts:
- Establish a diverse, tiered starting with hand sanitizers with multiple sizes as consumers seek a variety of formats for purses, desks and larger pump bottles for home use.
- Bundle core products across categories in a single, unified package to include gloves, mask and sanitation solution.
- Properly vet vendors, as there’s been a cottage industry of hand sanitizers that spawned some product recalls, according to multiple reports.
“C-store clients’ biggest concerns about PPE-related items sold in their stores has been product integrity, ingredients and pricing,” says Hutto.
And this can’t be a set it and forget it initiative either; what consumers seek from one week to the next is a moving target, says Erica Ward, marketing director for beverages, health and beauty care and general merchandise, Core-Mark International Inc., in Westlake, Texas. Core-Mark has “seen an ebb and flow of products and solutions for various items, and we’re working to stay top-of-mind about what’s in demand today vs. last month,” she said.
In mid-July, Core-Mark created a robust PPE plan-o-gram program intended to be positioned near a store’s entrance, check stand or as an end cap. “The [5-foot high] rack rests on casters and can be easily moved,” says Ward. “People are looking for 0.5-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer to hang on a purse or backpack, but also 1-, 2- and 8-ounce packages. It’s about fulfilling PPE needs as consumers move through their everyday journey.”
At big-box grocery and drug chains, Ward says, customers have to scurry about to locate masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes and paper products. Core-Mark’s dedicated set allows for bundling items into a single package for peg or shelf placement, and giving the channel a leg up to build the transaction.
Front and Center
Fabulous Freddy’s is a prime example of a convenience retailer that has embraced upfront positioning of PPE products.
“Front and center in each of our stores, we have a PPE display,” says Patsy Varpula, category manager and price book manager for the Las Vegas-based chain. “It consists of gloves, sanitizers in multiple forms and sizes [spray, foam and gel from 2- to 16-ounces], no-touch ‘cootie keys,’ facemasks—both disposable and reusable—as well as any sanitizing wipes/sprays we manage to get from our janitorial company.”
At Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven Inc., PPE items have evolved to become a blended destination and impulse purchase. Brooke Hodierne, vice president of merchandising for 7-Eleven, says that to help customers take necessary precautions and reduce COVID-19 transmission, the chain added face coverings and even disposable tissues and gloves to its product mix, often positioned on an endcap near the checkout counter.
“We gave out a [free] roll of toilet paper with a car-wash purchase.”
“Face masks are generally an impulse buy, a novelty that brings a smile … or a convenient resource when a customer enters one of our stores without face protection,” she says.
Core-Mark’s Ward says face coverings have moved from commodities to fashion statements. “We offer adult and kids fashion masks for youth and adult preferences. When there was a mask shortage, volunteers stepped up to make ones with panache and flair.”
Reliable Supply Chain
Fabulous Freddy’s procures sanitation products through its janitorial supplier that typically supplies cups, lids and straws. The chain’s supplier has Varpula and a few others on an email chain to provide updates about supply chain status for replenishment.
“You have to reply back without hesitation or it’ll be out of stock by the time you’ve made a decision,” she says.
Hutto with McLane says “there has been a flood of new suppliers working to participate in the category. We have quite a few options available and are working diligently to ensure product integrity is protected while introducing these new items.”
For relatively unsung stock like paper products—toilet paper, paper towels and tissues—McLane is seeing continuous improvements with in-stock levels, says Hutto. “As suppliers have shifted their production lines to accommodate the highest velocity items, we have adjusted our offerings to include these items in our assortment,” she says.
Fabulous Freddy’s got creative with a typically staid product. “We created a gimmick where we gave out a [free] roll of toilet paper with a car-wash purchase. That was an interesting one,” Varpula says.
Ward envisions a typical general merchandise department in c-stores as future-forward reimagined to permanently make room for PPE as other core items are phased down or out, including things like light bulbs and batteries.
Others concur. “Stocking scarce, high-demand products is a challenge, but it’s our responsibility to deliver the essentials people need to keep going during difficult times,” says Hodierne. “That is, in fact, what 7-Eleven was founded on—offering bread, milk and eggs when customers couldn’t get them when they needed them most—and that’s still the case today. Because face coverings have now become one of life’s essentials, we’ve added them to the mix in most areas.”
Building dedicated sections and establishing a buttoned-down supply chain are vital necessities.
Healing Solutions LLC, which established its core business in aroma therapy solutions, had planned to roll out a new hand sanitizer product in late 2020 but moved the launch date earlier to cater to its c-store accounts, which include Circle K, Chevron and Love’s.
According to Jason Kern, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Phoenix-based Healing Solutions, a 2-ounce bottle of Healing Solutions hand sanitizer is the preferred format of many consumers as it can be placed in school bags, purses and backpacks. Other pack sizes for other uses include 4- and 16-ounce formats. Healing Solutions Hand sanitizer comes in 12-count, tear-top cartons that allows for easy opening and positioning on countertops as an impulse display, all part of a “total turnkey solution we offer them,” says Kern.
“Consumers now have established a higher expectation bar for what they seek with hand sanitizers. And unfortunately, COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while, so c-stores will see hand sanitizers as being more of a core piece to their health-and-beauty-care departments in the future,” says Kern.
Hutto of McLane Co. agrees, noting that “most retailers have found dedicated space near the checkout, either an end cap or a free-standing floor stand,” for such products. “Items that have been showcased in these sections include but are not limited to sanitizer, hand soap, toilet paper, disposable masks, reusable masks, gaiters and bandanas,” she says.
Ward says an underestimated key is thinking beyond general merchandise in terms of PPE and holistically championing health, safety and sanitation as a sweeping chain philosophy. Many are already executing this, and by demonstrating a commitment to the segment, it has the potential to generate higher general merchandise PPE sales.
“If you’re a retailer, think of your whole store as an opportunity to be COVID-proof, from forecourt to in-store and including foodservice,” says Ward. “COVID-19, unfortunately, will be here awhile.”
Retailers and consumers need to be prepared.