Convenience Stores Sell the Most Fuel

An estimated 80% of the fuel purchased in the United States occurs at a local convenience store.

March 24, 2021  read

There are 150,274 convenience stores operating in the United States, and among those stores 121,538 sell fuel—an estimated 80% of all stores, according to the 2021 NACS/NielsenIQ Convenience Industry Store Count

There are approximately 145,000 to 150,000 total fueling outlets in the United States. That number has decreased over the years as demand has plateaued and drivers seek out modern stations with more fueling spots and/or a robust in-store offer.

There are four broad categories of fueling locations:

  • Convenience stores are the dominant fueling outlet, selling an estimated 80% of the fuel purchased in the country. 121,538 convenience stores and truck stops sell fuel.
  • Kiosk fueling sites that have a very small assortment of items. 15,638 fueling kiosks sell fuel.
  • Hypermarkets: 6,494 hypermarkets sell fuel. These outlets are at supermarkets and big-box outlets such as Walmart, Costco, Sam’ Club and Kroger.
  • Service Stations: Until the early 1970s, this was the dominant fuel retailer. However, service station store count has dramatically decreased as newer formats entered the fueling business. High-tech computer diagnostic equipment has dramatically increased expenses and drivers have increasingly serviced their vehicles at dealerships, which aggressively push their services for maintenance and repairs. It is not an exact figure, but an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 locations sell fuel, including small-volume locations like marinas. 

While 2020 was impacted by the global pandemic and reduced commuter traffic, fuel sales in the United States average 9.3 million barrels per day, or about 390 million gallons per day. With approximately 150,000 fueling locations, the average fueling location sells about 2,600 gallons of gas per day, while hypermarkets, with large forecourts and plentiful fueling dispensers, often sell five times more. Some convenience stores like Buc-ee’s, which has upwards of 100 fueling positions at its sites, have higher volumes.

Small Businesses Fuel America

For decades, convenience stores have sold the most gas in the United States; however, that was not always the case. In 1971, just 7% of convenience stores sold fuel. The move toward self-fueling to save a few cents, spurred by the price shocks of the 1970s, led to more consumers embracing convenience stores for lower prices on gas and one-stop shopping for additional in-store items. By the mid-1980s, convenience stores sold most of the gas in the country.

Today, there are more than 121,000 convenience stores selling fuel in the United States. Overall, 57% of these locations are single-store operators, representing nearly 70,000 stores. Many of these operations may not have the resources to brand their stores separately from the brand of fuel they sell and promote on the canopy, often leading to misperceptions that their business is owned and operated by a major oil company.

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 (Source: NACS/NielsenIQ 2021 Convenience Industry Store Count)

Major oil companies have begun to reemerge on the retail landscape, reversing a decade-plus trend that reduced their share of the market to less than 0.5% by 2017.

The five major oil companies (Shell Oil Co./Motiva Enterprises LLC, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., BP North America and ConocoPhillips/Phillips 66) collectively have 15,457 stores but all are franchise operations. Only Shell Oil Co./Motiva Enterprises LLC (9 stores) and Chevron (13 stores) own and operate stores.

The remaining 50% of convenience stores selling fuel have established their own fuel brand and purchase fuels either on the open market or via unbranded contracts with a refiner/distributor.

The Decline in Fueling Sites

There are fewer fueling locations in the United States than there were 10 years, and significantly fewer than there were 30 years ago—or even 60 years ago. Some estimates suggest there were 300,000 fueling outlets in the 1920s—twice the number of outlets that there are today—that sold very small volumes.

The last comprehensive census of fueling sites was conducted in 2012 by National Petroleum News (NPN), a publication founded in 1909 to track and analyze the petroleum industry. The last published station count in 2012 identified 156,065 locations, a sharp drop from the 1991 count of 210,120 fueling locations.

Prior to 1991, NPN published a store count based on U.S. Census data that included gas stations that derived more than 50% of their earnings from petroleum products and services (traditional gas stations) and did not include convenience stores, garages, repair shops, dealerships and independent operators. This count was dramatically lower than previous counts, and it’s possible that 100,00 or more fueling locations were omitted from this census. NPN showed a decline in fueling locations from 114,748 in 1987 to 111,657 in 1990.

From the mid to late 1980s, the fueling count also dropped, but was based on a different accounting. During this period, the U.S. Census count was limited to stores with payrolls, eliminating small independent stations without payrolls (roughly 15% of the industry). This count also only included gas stations that derived more than 50% of their earnings from petroleum products and services and did not include convenience stores, garages, repair shops, dealerships and independent operators. With this limited data set, the defined number of fueling locations dropped from 116,154 in 1984 to 93,864 in 1987. It’s possible that 120,000 or more fueling locations were omitted from this count annually.

The steepest drop in fueling location count was from 1970 to 1985 and used U.S. Census data. During this period, very few outlets besides service stations sold fuel, so the count is a more accurate representation of the total fueling universe but underreports the overall fueling universe. During that 15-year period, the number of fueling locations dropped by almost 100,000, from 222,000 in 1970 to 130,000 in 1985. Prior to 1970, annual station counts are spottier but over 200,000: 211,473 in 1963 and 206,755 in 1958.