KANSAS CITY — While shop-’til-you-drop remains a favorite American pastime, many people today consider it a luxury or just don’t have time for it anymore. That’s because brick-and-mortar can’t consistently and comfortably compete with the flick of the finger and click on an app that’s defining the digital age. In fact, nearly as many consumers today would rather wash dishes — or so they say — than hop in their cars to browse in-store, according a recent global survey by the Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute.
Despite the developing digital divide, convenience stores continue to fill the gap that just cannot be done on-line, especially when it comes to consumers fueling their cars with gas and their bodies with grab-and-go snacks.
Granted, cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and Big Gulps still account for the vast majority of inside c-store sales, but as the price of petro has fallen and the pack of smokes rises, an accelerating number of chains are seeking new ways to offset the slumping sales of their core revenue generators.
They’re doing that by further venturing into the breakfast, lunch and inter-meal snacking occasions with more enhanced alternatives for consumers.
“Food service options have been remarkable,” observed Bob Swanson, director of research for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). “There has been a concerted effort to increase the quality of food offered at convenience stores, and the reason for that effort is quite clear. Foods and beverages are high-margin products for some of the top-performing chains. Gas sales declined; cigarette sales slipped because of regulations and high taxes. C-stores are looking at other categories for growth, particularly in food service.”
Today, bakers and snack producers cite c-store chains such as Cumberland Farms, WaWa and Sheetz, Inc. in the mid-Atlantic and QuikTrip in the Midwest as setting the standard when it comes to offering freshly prepared food or more upscale options made on-premise.
The movement includes premium coffee service that can rival Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks or even McCafes. The kiosk or station often includes microwaveable — or to a lesser extent, freshly prepared — breakfast and luncheon sandwiches, chicken and pizza that attempt to rival quick-service restaurants (Q.S.R.s) and even some of the more upscale soup and sub sandwich shops.
“We partner with some pretty large c-store operators, and they specifically target Q.S.R.s when working on their store layouts and what they have to offer so that they can provide a newer, higher level of service,” noted Jerry Law, senior vice-president, J&J Snack Foods, Pennsauken, N.J.
Just about a decade ago, the only “fresh” offerings were hot dogs and Mexican taquitos perpetually turning on the roller grills next to the cash register.
“Today, you have restaurant-style products that you can sit down and enjoy,” noted Jack Anderson, president and chief executive officer, JSB Industries, the Chelsea, Mass.-based producer of muffins, bagels and other baked goods and a longtime supplier to the c-store industry. “We’re seeing products trending toward popular items such as a quick sandwich or a bagel and cream cheese.”
The number of top-line c-store chains that are committed to selling fresh products is “eye-opening,” according to Mr. Law. In addition to the daily delivery of baked goods from wholesale bakers or commissaries, some chains serve breakfast donuts and pastries from behind a display case or even prepare made-to-order sandwiches via an in-store deli.
“When you think about the offerings behind the counter, they now include soup and sandwiches that are fresh,” Mr. Law pointed out. “They’re trying to have their offerings perceived as more wholesome. Traditional stand-alone sandwich shops should be shaking in their boots by what some c-stores are offering.”
That said, the majority of c-stores haven’t made the leap to the fresh food concept, but it’s gradually changing. Many in the top quartile of chains are now making inroads toward competing against Q.S.R.s for that share of stomach. As a result, it may not be too surprising that food service sales in convenience stores rose 11.4% in 2015, according to the latest industry data by NACS.
“Channel lines are blurring,” Mr. Swanson said. “Everybody is trying to offer convenient foods. People want a quick-in-and-out, and c-stores provide a pretty fast option.”