C-Stores Pivot to Food Sales During Pandemic

NACS survey finds the coronavirus crisis is changing customer preferences for more take-home, bulk items.

April 02, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Convenience retailers say they have seen an increase in sales of grocery staples as customers increasingly turn to their local convenience store for pantry items.

More than half of all retailers (52%) say their grocery sales have increased, according to a national survey of U.S. convenience store owners conducted by NACS, the trade association that represents the convenience and fuel retailing industry.

Convenience stores traditionally sell immediate consumption items—83% of all products sold at a store are consumed within an hour—but they have pivoted to providing items that can be brought home: 52% say they are adding more cleaning/toiletry items, 31% are emphasizing ready-to-heat meals and 28% are showcasing multi-pack/bulk items.

At the same time, convenience stores have dramatically scaled back self-serve foodservice and restaurant functions: 66% say they have closed public seating and dining areas and 45% have removed customer access to self-serve foodservice such as coffee, fountain drinks, bakery items and roller grill. It is important to note that these percentages reflect retailers who have made changes; many operators do not have dining areas, for instance.

Even with the significant shift in products sold, nearly half (46%) of convenience retailers say their current distribution system is working. Another one in five (18%) say the system is sufficient, but they are supplementing it with other deliveries.

New programs offer convenience, sanitizing

Retailers also are looking at new programs to allow social distancing and to enhance convenience: 14% are offering some sort of curbside pickup program, 13% have increased a focus on drive-thru and 11% have added or increased delivery options.

Convenience stores, which sell 80% of the fuel purchased in the United States, have ramped up the frequency of cleaning and sanitation practices inside the store and at the pump. Nearly one in three (31%) retailers are providing hand sanitizer at the pump and 20% provide gloves. Overall, 99% of retailers surveyed say they have enhanced their cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces, with regular cleaning conducted as often as every 30 minutes.

Supporting communities

Nearly two in three retailers (60%) say they have reduced store operating hours, due to less customer traffic or to deep clean and restock during overnight hours. “We are here for the public and their needs. We are taking every precaution to conduct business safely,” noted one survey respondent.

Convenience retailers also are supporting medical/healthcare personnel and first responders: Nearly half (49%) of survey respondents are supporting these heroes in their communities by offering free beverages and steep discounts on food, delivering free meals to local hospitals and firehouses, providing free fuel for critical community groups that provide school lunch deliveries, donating product to food banks and other programs, and supplying masks and other supplies to emergency and healthcare professionals.

“We have always supported first responders with coffee and the like to help them through their shifts,” said Douglas Dean with 76/Circle K (Tamuning, Guam).

Retailers also stressed the importance of their teams serving customers. Nearly one in three (32%) said that employee conversations, no matter how brief, were the most effective means of communications to tell people about their pandemic response activities.

“It’s critical that we let our employees know we appreciate the fact they helped us hold our company together,” said Kim Robello with Minit Stop Markets (Kahului, Hawaii).

Summing up the current operating climate, Dennis McCartney with Landhope Farms (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania) noted, “The emphasis on cross-contamination and customer safety is something that has been highlighted over and over during this crisis and something that will continue long after this is over. We are vowing not to relax these ‘cleaning and sanitizing processes on steroids’ and will continue to magnify their importance to our associates and our customers.”

The NACS Retailer Member survey was fielded in late March and closed April 1. A total of 105 member companies, representing a cumulative 1,828 stores, participated in the survey.

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