Here’s What C-Store Shoppers Are Actually Thinking

Most are deciding to buy something at your c-store before they even walk through your doors.

May 06, 2022

Marketing and Advertising Methods that impact Consumers

By Sara Counihan

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—If only convenience retailers could peer inside the minds of their shoppers to find meaning behind their shopping behaviors and purchasing decisions. Well, NACS did just that, and Leroy Kelsey, NACS’ director of research, tells all in this week’s NACS Convenience Matters podcast episode.

“One of the things that makes us unique as a channel is that 80% of what we sell gets consumed within the hour, and 65% before the customer even leaves the parking lot,” said Kelsey. “I think that immediacy is one of the reasons why we chose mobile intercepts to talk to people. We wanted to capture that retail moment of truth.”

That “retail moment of truth” describes NACS’ Convenience Voices survey, which has been conducted annually over the past 10 years. Kelsey said that during the 2021 survey, one of the biggest insights that it captured was where/when customers decided to make a purchase at a convenience store.

Surprisingly, only 19% of shoppers, or 1 in 5, decided to make the purchase on site at the convenience store.

“The lion’s share of those purchase decisions actually happened before the customer even left where they’re coming from or even before that day,” said Kelsey.

Forty-three percent of shoppers said that they made the decision to make a purchase at a c-store before they left their location, and 38% said they decided on the way to or from somewhere else, meaning that over 80% of the decision to make a c-store purchase happens before the customer sets foot in a store.

The survey also found that 19% of customers searched for a product or service on a digital device in order to select the convenience store that they visited. Kelsey said that digital will expand the four walls of the convenience store.

“That told us that shoppers are not only very premeditated, but they’re using digital to identify which offers are going to be in their consideration set,” he said. “They’re [thinking about] what your brand promises and what type of experience they can expect from you, and that runway to the actual purchase is going to get longer thanks to digital technology.”

Kelsey said that a byproduct of retailers pivoting to more digital offers during the pandemic was that shoppers are adopting the industry’s digital apps and loyalty programs at a much higher clip. More than half of convenience-store shoppers have a store’s loyalty program on a mobile device, and 79% of those shoppers that conducted a digital search did so on a cellphone.

“Customized promotions can do a great job communicating your value to shoppers in a relevant way. Digital helps with that,” said Kelsey, adding that there are a significant number of shoppers that feel as if they don’t have enough time to stop at a c-store to shop.

“In other words, they typically shop convenience, but they perceive that because they don’t have enough time on this occasion, they can’t actually shop.”

Kelsey said c-stores should be leveraging last-mile services for these customers, such as curbside and order pickup or click and collect.

Additionally, there are a higher percentage of shoppers that aren’t shopping at c-stores because they’re on a limited or strict budget or because they perceive that the products inside the c-store are expensive.

“A good strategy moving forward for those folks that are on a limited budget is communicating custom promotions, discounts, rewards, things that communicate value to shoppers,” said Kelsey.

According to the survey, 30% of shoppers noticed promotions while visiting convenience stores, and 15% of those noticed promotions were received via mobile.

“We have traditional ways to communicate value on the forecourt, whether it be pump screens, pump toppers, bollard signs, all types of different ways, but we have some new ways as well—think about that digital runway and ways we can take advantage of customization,” he said.

Seventy-one percent of shoppers also said they would likely purchase a private label or value brand from the convenience store that they’re shopping.

“Without taking focus away from the core and national brands, there are opportunities for appropriate value brands or private labels to play a role as well to communicate,” said Kelsey.

Don’t miss this week’s Convenience Matters podcast episode No. 334 “Navigating Your Customers’ Path to Purchase” to learn more customer insights, including how the majority of shoppers are not choosing a fueling location based on price alone and what they are actually wanting out of your brand.

Sara Counihan is contributing editor of NACS Daily and NACS Magazine. She can be reached at