5 Ways to Modernize the C-Store Shopping Experience

By 
Brett Dworski, Associate Editor

girls on phone

LAS VEGAS – Building connections with consumers via engaging products, flexible operations and an empowering approach can increase engagement and modernize the traditional convenience-store shopping experience, said Laurie Demeritt, CEO of food consultancy The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., during the education session "A New Model of Shopper Need States in Convenience Stores" at the 2018 NACS Show in Las Vegas.

“C-stores are evolving their offerings and experiences to align with modern notions of convenience,” Demeritt said. “[This] is beginning to change perceptions of traditional c-stores and is raising expectations among consumers.”

And when it comes to fulfilling consumers’ enhanced expectations, she said it comes down to “the three R’s”— research, relationships, and recreation—gaining the information pertaining to each need and turning that into a new store feature, thus increasing loyalty.

Here are five more of Demeritt’s tips to help retailers modernize the c-store shopping experience …

Photographs: Shutterstock

1. Know Your Consumer

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The first step in modernizing the consumer experience is to know the consumers themselves, Demeritt said. Who they are, what they do, where they live, what their values are and how they connect with the world all contribute to their shopping experience.

Single-person households or homes of two adults who are culturally diverse living in suburban regions are a rapidly growing consumer base, she said. When it comes to their food, these consumers value wellness and global distinctions, as well as ones that offer both modernity and nostalgia.

2. Focus on beverages

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Although food remains a c-store staple—29% of consumers say they purchase one or more items to eat every trip, compared to 25% in cafes and 20% in drugstores—beverages are the most sought-after items, she said.

“Beverages are not only key drivers of c-store trips, but they are perhaps the ‘stickiness’ for habituation and loyalty to c-stores,” Demeritt said.

Thirty-six percent of consumers said they purchase one or more items to drink every c-store trip, the highest of any c-store visitation reason, according to research from The Hartman Group. Only 24% and 20% said the same for quick-service restaurants (QSR) and drugstores, respectively.

3. Offer fresh and unique food

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C-stores have an opportunity to narrow the gap with competitors, such as QSRs, drugstores and grocers, by offering indulgence-oriented and “discover” offerings—more unique foods.

And although c-stores such as Rutter's, Sheetz and Wawa have dabbled in fresh, prepared foods, consumers are still expecting more of it. Eighty-two percent of consumers find the idea of fresh food at c-stores appealing, while 76% are likely to eat it, Demeritt said, citing Hartman Group research. Even 29% said they’re more likely to buy a fresh meal at a c-store if food is made in front of them.

4. Make it an experience

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Consumers crave new in-store experiences, which can benefit retailers by having customers stay inside longer, Demeritt said. This can be done by creating one or two spaces where consumers can sit in stores and relax, which may change their entire shopping experience, she said.

“The desire for convenience has expanded beyond traditional notions of speed and accessibility to include more experiential aspirations,” she said.

This sentiment is especially prevalent among young consumers. Forty-two percent of millennials said that dine-in seating or events such as food tastings or offering coffee or adult beverages while stopping in would be appealing, while 33% of Gen Z consumers said the same, according to the Winning the War for Convenience Report from CSP and sister research company Technomic.

5. Combine the old with the new

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Evolving with consumers requires blending both traditional and modern elements of convenience, Demeritt said. This comes down to four actions: maintain (retail traditional relevance), improve (deepen satisfaction), exceed (grow channel competitiveness) and expand (push the boundaries). Channeling these areas may help consumers achieve convenience in more relevant ways, she said.

“Convenience is a mindset more than a format, and the retail landscape is responding with broader ways to meet c-store consumers’ needs,” she said.