Convenience Retail Redefines Its ‘Normal’

Globally, industry leaders agree that major changes are redefining the c-store landscape. 

May 04, 2020

By Chris Blasinsky

WALES—First, there is no going back to how stores operated in a pre-COVID-19 environment, only the look ahead. That provocative statement summarizes how many convenience retail leaders around the world are innovating and rethinking the traditional c-store space.

On May 1, Insight Research hosted a “Shop Talk Live” webinar that focused on how convenience retail operations in the United States, Ireland and United Kingdom are planning for both short-term and long-term changes as economies gradually reopen.

In Ireland, Joe Barrett, COO at Applegreen, noted that local petrol shops have performed well, while there has been a significant impact on motorway operations with less travel and a countrywide lockdown that will likely continue through the end of May.

“We don’t see the start of any kind of comeback starting toward the end of May and into June,” Barrett said, adding that initial predictions of a V-shaped recovery will likely look more like a hockey stick. As restrictions are lifted and economies start to improve, his conservative view is that total recovery may not be until December 2021. “I think we’re talking at least a year away and two years before we’re fully back to 100%,” he said.

In the United States, Derek Gaskins, CMO at Yesway, said that 50 different sets of lockdowns or statuses across all states have created operational challenges and tangible differences in each market. As the U.S. is on the cusp of restrictions slowly starting to loosen up, Gaskins shared that some states are disproportionally experiencing more movement than others, like in Texas where 90-degree-plus temperatures have led to stores seeing more traffic and gallons sold. However, in other Northern or Midwestern states, business is returning more slowly.

Gaskins echoed Barrett’s insight that it will take time until businesses are fully operational. “The behaviors have changed significantly in some ways that will never come back,” he said. “As a retailer we must evolve forward to meet those new needs in a post-COVID world.”

In the U.K., Debbie Robinson, chief executive of Central England Co-operative, said that her company is not looking at how things were prior to the pandemic and has banned the word “back” from its vocabulary. “We only have the future, and we are very much looking at what is happening” through several lens: global economic factors as well as implications from a retail perspective and social perspective, she said.

The current economic situation is unchartered territory for businesses, suggested Robinson, noting that comparing the pandemic crisis with the market crash in 2008 is apples to oranges in that both events were brought on by entirely different circumstances. She noted that people likely would not be returning to full workweeks for the next 12 to 18 months. “That’s helping us project what we think will happen to our fuel usage but also what might happen on the food side.” 

Gaskins added that moving forward, it’s possible certain behaviors will no longer be acceptable in a retail environment. For example, self-serve foodservice without the use of technology and digital enhancements is one. Consumers could look at pre-COVID foodservice—from fresh food items to bakery, dispensed beverages and roller grill—as “relics of the past, he said.

“I think it’s a combination of embracing technology and the role it can play,” said Gaskins, whether through automated systems for coffee and/or hot-prepared food. 

Gaskins said that self-serve will change coming out of the pandemic, and small retail formats in the U.S. could begin to operate and “look” more global in the presentation of self-serve options. “Packaging will become a consumer expectation on fresh perishables, and the open bakery case that is accessible to all or fresh fruit at counters will now need some form of sustainable packaging to keep it safe and sanitary,” he said.  

“At Yesway and Allsup’s, we have seen a profound shift toward our crew-served food,” said Gaskins, noting that this is one direction more retailers could embrace as they continue to offer traditional roller grill items, breakfast sandwiches and other grab-and-go foods that had only been available as self-serve. 

“Fortunately, we always maintained strong food safety procedures, with use of gloves, bags and effective packaging. Our greeters also provide some customer comfort as they stepped up cleaning of high-touch surfaces like counters, doors, etc.,” said Gaskins. “This helped alleviate cleanliness concerns and positioned us well in consumers’ minds.” 

Chris Blasinsky is the content communications strategist at NACS. She can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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