ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Convenience retailers say that in-store sales grew in 2020, with twice as many reporting an in-store sales increase than a decrease (59% vs. 30%, respectively), according to a new survey of U.S. convenience store owners by NACS Research.
Convenience stores, which sell 80% of the fuel purchased in the country, experienced a decrease in fuel sales and commuter traffic throughout the pandemic. However, retailers adjusted their in-store offers to focus more on take-home meals and grab-and-go meal solutions: 49% put more emphasis on pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals, 41% focused more on prepared foodservice meals and 24% focused more on ready-to-heat take-home meals.
Sales figures from the NACS CSX database confirm this post-pandemic sales trend. From April through November 2020 (December data is not yet finalized), ready-to-eat and ready-to-eat meal options both saw double-digit increases, compared with the same period in 2019.
Retailers Modify Sales Mix
Retailers also added or extended their offer around more in-demand products: 39% focused more on cleaning/toiletry items, and 34% focused more on grocery items. And, because COVID-19 restrictions limited on-premise consumption of alcohol at other establishments, convenience stores focused more on take-home alcohol offers. Overall, 39% of stores put more emphasis on this category, with 58% adding new items.
While convenience stores added or focused on new offers, they also found some traditional items in short supply. More than two in three (69%) say it was difficult to find qualified candidates for jobs, 69% say that cleaning items/toiletries were in short supply and 59% say that the coin circulation challenges experienced this summer affected their stores. In addition, 48% say they experienced shortages of alcoholic beverages (beer and wine), and 42% saw shortages of packaged beverages (bottled water, soda, energy drinks, teas).
“We exist in a small community (Arivaca, Arizona), where the nearest gas and grocery is over 35 miles away. During the pandemic we were able to stay open and (mostly) stocked, and our community was infinitely appreciative of that,” said Damon Goodmanson of II Sonz LLC, which operates the Arivaca Mercantile in town.
Changes Expected to Continue in 2021
While 83% of items traditionally purchased at a convenience store are consumed within the hour, often in the car, retailers will continue to build up their take-home and meal offers in 2021. Fifty-eight percent say they will emphasize prepared foodservice meals, 51% will focus more on prepared ready-to-eat meals like salads and sandwiches, and 30% will focus more on ready-to-heat meals.
Similarly, retailers will continue to expand convenient order and payment options: 38% will expand their app-based ordering and payments, 32% will expand mobile ordering for in-store pickup and 14% will offer more ordering options at the pump for in-store pickup.
Meanwhile, the NACS Research report, “Last Mile Fulfillment in Convenience Retail,” showed that last mile fulfillment presents an opportunity to expand a store’s sales reach, and retailers are embracing this opportunity: 33% will offer more curbside pickup, 18% will expand the drive-thru offer and 17% will add or expand home delivery in 2021.
Outlook for 2021
Retailers say they are more pessimistic (41%) than optimistic (24%) about shopper foot traffic for first-quarter 2021, but they are increasingly optimistic about sales in each ensuing quarter. By the fourth quarter, retailers say they are more optimistic (67%) than pessimistic (6%) about how business will be performing, likely due to an expectation that a larger proportion of Americans will have received a COVID-19 vaccination by the end of the year.
In addition to sales, retailers say they will continue or expand their community giving in 2021. Overall, 61% say they will have programs to support local schools, 48% will support local first responders, 32% will focus on wellness programs for the community and 27% will support hunger relief programs.
Most of all, retailers expect that the feeling of community and the teamwork in stores will continue to resonate in 2021.
“With the shutdown of restaurants and entertainment, people still need to see familiar faces and be able to have some normalcy to their daily lives. Many of our customers continue to come in for that cup of coffee and to be greeted by our employees that they see every day on their way to work. We have received many words of thankfulness for our support of our communities,” said Randy Fuller at Bill L. Dover Company Inc., which operates 16 Jiffy Markets around Jasper, Texas.
“Our entire c-store staff did a magnificent job in 2020. I am sure that when they joined the company they did not envision wearing masks and shields eight hours a day and working behind plastic screens as an essential, frontline, service to the community during a raging pandemic. Their efforts in serving are shadowed by the health-care industry but are in the reality of human needs, no less important,” said Douglas Dean at South Pacific Petroleum Corp., which operates 13 76/Circle K stores in Guam.
And, retailers also recognized the efforts of workers at other stores. In April and May, it was common to see retailers rewarding health-care workers with special offers in recognition of their important work. Landhope Farms, a three-store chain based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, took this type of recognition one step further.
“We decided to get in the game as well and offer free coffee to all essential workers—including the people who work at Walmart, Target, local grocery stores and farmers in our area. I truly believe that in addition to the first responders and health-care professionals, the ‘essential worker’ is the unsung hero of 2020. Our customers appreciated being noticed and recognized for being essential,” said Dennis McCartney, the company’s director of operations.
The NACS Retailer Member Pulse Survey was conducted in December by NACS Research. A total of 71 member companies, representing a cumulative 1,717 stores, participated in the survey. NACS Research conducts quarterly custom research with retailer members to identify key priorities and opportunities across the convenience and fuel retail landscape. Learn more about NACS Research.