A Parting of the Clouds

Drivers continue to feel better about the economy, and they are looking for retailers who best understand their needs.

A Parting of the Clouds

May 2024   minute read

By: Jeff Lenard , Adam Rosenblatt

The latest NACS Consumer Fuels Survey reveals that many Americans are feeling better—though that doesn’t yet mean things are good. On the whole, consumers today are sour on the state of the economy, with 56% of drivers saying they are pessimistic compared to 44% saying optimistic. But this is a noteworthy 10 percentage point improvement compared to one year ago, when 34% were optimistic while 66% were pessimistic.

As it relates to convenience retailing, the newest survey shows several signs that overall consumer behavior is creeping closer to what it was like before the pandemic. The morning commute continues to see more traffic as businesses are increasingly encouraging workers to return to their offices.

Though inflation remains a fact of life, consumers today appear a little less concerned about gas prices and, in turn, they are less likely to blame their local retailer for the price at the pump.

That’s all definitely good news. But the findings from the 2024 NACS Consumer Fuels Survey also show that the consumer psyche is still shaken four years after the start of the pandemic. Winning customers is still a fight. Here’s a look at how consumers think so you can best meet their needs, grow customer traffic and win lasting loyalty.

Gas Prices Take a Bit of a Back Seat

Drivers will always be concerned about gas prices, regardless of where prices are. Despite natural swings based on seasonality and other external factors, gas prices are roughly the same as they were this time last year ($3.38 at the time of the 2024 NACS survey, compared to $3.34 for the 2023 survey).

Overall, 89% of drivers say that gas prices impact their feelings about the economy, and 78% say that gas prices impact their driving decisions. With the price at the pump essentially on par with where it was last year, both data points should be taken as welcome, positive news for attracting drivers—and shoppers.

The survey suggests that inflation may be having an unintended ripple effect on consumers’ sensitivity towards gas prices, as Americans have grown accustomed to rising prices across all parts of the economy. In prior years, drivers said they would drive significantly less if the price at the pump were around $4.50 and that they would seek out an alternative to driving or dramatically change their behavior if prices hit $5.50. When looking at those same questions in 2024, the mean today is essentially $1.50 higher.

For most, buying gas is not a discretionary purchase but rather something requisite to accomplish other things in their lives. To that end, the price of gas remains the dominant factor in where they choose to fuel up.

For every 10 drivers, seven seek out price, two base their decision on location and one is a dedicated loyalist to a specific brand. These factors have held remarkably steady over the past three years.

Despite the above, price is not the sole factor and there are many keys to success for building loyal customers.

More than half of all drivers (55%) say that they have a preference for a certain gas station or chain—and price is but one of many factors, including important in-store attributes.

Gas prices certainly are a big reason that drivers go to your store, but there are other opportunities to win them over beyond the price at pump.

Lots of Opportunities Inside the Store

Thinking specifically about the last time they fueled up, nearly three in five drivers (58%) said they went inside the store.

In fact, most consumers (56%) say that they go inside the store before they purchase gas. And that’s even more pronounced for females.

Why might so many be heading inside the store first? For many, it’s nature calling. More than one in four drivers (26%) say that they used the bathroom the last time they went inside the store, and that is often a pressing issue that takes priority over other behaviors.

That also means that the bathroom door is really a second front door for more than one in four of your customers. Their experience in the restroom will play a large role in determining how much they will then spend. If you have a clean, well-managed facility, they will be much more open to trusting your food and beverages—especially prepared items.

Speaking of foodservice, the number of people who purchased a sandwich or meal is nearly double what it was last year: 25% in 2024 compared to 13% in 2023.

And as meals grow in popularity, so do beverages, which consistently remain a leading reason why customers come inside the store. With the American workforce moving closer towards a post-pandemic, return-to-office world, we see a one percentage point increase in those who are working along with a three percentage point increase in those now commuting at least two days per week. The rise in beverage sales shown below may be from commuters looking to jumpstart their morning with a caffeinated option.

Breakfast sandwiches may also be what consumers are grabbing as the morning rush has returned—and then some. A record 27% of drivers say that they tend to buy gas during the morning commute, up five percentage points over the past two years. It’s also possible that inflation-pressed consumers are increasingly open to having a morning meal via a convenience store rather than buying groceries or eating out elsewhere.

While new innovations are constantly reshaping the industry, many Americans still prefer the good-old-fashioned way of checking out with a cashier. If presented with the option of a cashier or a self-checkout machine, more Americans pick a real person (46% to 29%). That said, one in four customers (26%) say they don’t have a preference. As we have observed in the past, there are significant variances by age, with younger customers much more likely to embrace a technology-powered and conversation-free experience over a human. By contrast, older customers, as well as frequent customers, are more interested in maintaining their classic experience with a cashier; 51% of frequent customers and 57% of those age 65+ say they prefer a cashier, and for many that relationship likely plays a major role in why they value the store at which they shop.

What They Think About You Matters

Enhanced offerings help build lasting loyalty among customers. They are more likely to inconvenience themselves to go to a store that they like than one that has the best gas price—and that’s a huge shift in behavior from just a decade ago.

We see sizable a nine percentage point increase in those who would make a left-hand turn to go to a store they like more—yet a six percentage point drop in those who would drive five minutes out of their way just to save five cents per gallon.

Whether or not drivers do go out of their way to visit a store, it’s clear the basics are more important than ever. Safety and cleanliness, the top two attributes, are even more important to consumers than a year ago. As consumers purchase more c-store foodservice, they also expect the quality to be high.

And it’s also important to show that you care about the community, whether by communicating your value offer or your charitable contributions.

Those who are the most frequent customers are most interested in hearing how you care about your local community (45% “very important” among frequent customers, compared to 34% among all customers). In fact, those frequent customers may keep coming back because they already know what you do for the community.

The past few pages highlighted consumer preferences and what you can do to grow your customer traffic over the coming months. The good news is that you’ve already done a lot. C-stores are a valued part of their communities.

While pessimism may be the present default for how people feel about the economy, it’s clear that they are favorable to our industry and the valued roles we play in their local communities. This is great news for an industry that continues to evolve and create that convenient, customized customer experience that keeps them coming back.

Road Trips Have Gone to the Dogs

It’s shaping up to be another busy summer drive season. Nearly two in three American adults (62%) say they are likely to take a road trip this summer, led by 78% of those ages 18 to 34.

The top three reasons for road trips? • 70% It is fun/enjoyable • 46% It is an easy way to see multiple destinations • 41% It is less expensive than other forms of travel Nearly two-thirds of Americans are pet owners, and half of all pet owners have gone on a road trip with their pet. Moreover, those who have traveled with their pets enjoyed doing so: 71% of Americans road tripping with their pets said it makes the journey more enjoyable, compared to 29% who said more challenging. If you have a dog-friendly store—with treats or toys, dog parks or dog washes—use social media to raise awareness of what you offer those traveling with dogs. And if you have a location that is friendly for those traveling with cats, let’s talk. That’s an interesting story to share.

Those in the zone of totality should expect a memorable experience.

“It was amazing to have it happen at our home,” said Natalie Bates, who experienced the event while working at Bodega convenience store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “The temperature dropped, and everything was dark. Dogs started barking, and babies started crying. It was kind of magical and cool.”

Want More Info?

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Got a question that you want us to answer? Send a note to Jeff Lenard at [email protected].

Fuels Resource Center

The online Fuels Resource Center shares updated consumer-friendly content related to gas prices, retail operations and consumer behavior, as well as fun pieces on 9/10 cent pricing and the evolution of self-serve fueling.

Fuels Market News

Published by NACS, FMN is the downstream petroleum industry’s trusted source for fuels-related news and information, covering the fuels of today and tomorrow.

About the 2024 Survey

NACS has conducted national consumer sentiment surveys since 2007, with a specific focus on fueling issues. The April 2024 issue of NACS Magazine featured a consumer survey looking at attitudes specifically related to jobs, crime and prices. This latest survey focuses more on fuels-related issues. It was conducted by national public opinion research firm Bold Decision (bold-decision.com); a total of 1,200 U.S. adults nationwide, including N=990 drivers, were surveyed from March 8-12, 2024. The overall margin for error for the study is +/- 2.83% at the 95% confidence level.

When referring to survey respondents, this article uses “drivers,” “consumers,” “Americans,” etc.—they all refer to people who buy fuel at least once a month unless otherwise indicated.

Jeff Lenard

Jeff Lenard

Jeff Lenard is NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. He can be reached at [email protected].

Adam Rosenblatt

Adam Rosenblatt

Adam Rosenblatt is a founding partner of Bold Decision and works with NACS to develop industry-specific insights from consumer survey data.

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