General Store

The general merchandise category is small, but it can be mighty.

General Store

September 2021   minute read

By: Pat Pape

When it comes to ordering general merchandise for Rutter’s, the 78-store Mid-Atlantic chain, Joseph Bortner always works about six months ahead of the next big season.

“Space is at a premium, and so we’re very selective when it comes to general merchandise and make sure we’re only putting the items with high demand in the stores,” said Bortner, category manager of center store, Rutter’s.

Source: NACS State of the Industry Report of 2020 Data

That sounds right to Adrienne Smith, product director, merchandising, for McLane Co. “As far as thinking about general merchandise in September, stores should be planning for winter, and depending on their location, merchandising things like snow brushes, ice scrapers, gloves, etc.,” she said. “And by now, retailers should also have scheduled distributions for seasonal novelty products.

And don’t forget batteries—plenty of batteries.

“Bringing that product in early ensures stores are able to capture the additional sales that take place as consumers grab those extra batteries they forgot while Christmas shopping,” Smith said.

Catch-All Category

“GM is a small category,” said Jayme Gough, NACS research manager. “It includes everything from cellphone accessories to batteries to propane exchanges and school and office supplies. It’s really a catch-all.”

While many convenience categories suffered during the pandemic in 2020, general merchandise performed well. “Many retailers put items related to COVID-19 safety, like hand sanitizers and masks, in the GM category, which boosted sales year over year,” Gough said. “In 2019, general merchandise was 1.69% of in-store sales, and in 2020, it was 2.0%. Average sales per store topped over $55,000 annually, and that was a 16.3% increase year over year.”

General merchandise is a way to stay trendy and relevant.

Like other retailers, Rutter’s saw a huge demand for personal protection products during the pandemic and collaborated with several suppliers to stay well stocked. “Around the beginning of 2021, we began reducing our inventory because we anticipated demand to fall,” said Bortner. “From then on, we partnered with select suppliers who could meet our needs, and we continue to offer options without needing to constantly monitor inventories.”

In 2020, the largest subcategory of general merchandise was “other general merchandise” (20.1% of category sales), including fans, trash cans, candles, boxes, flashlights and additional miscellaneous items. The next largest subcategory was propane exchanges, which typically make up a sizable portion of sales.

“CSX monthly sales data show a significant increase in propane exchanges in 2020, perhaps as a result of customers cooking at home during restaurant closures related to the pandemic,” Gough said, “though the subcategory’s sales typically spike in the summer with the warmer weather.”

The third largest subcategory was smoking accessories, such as lighters (12.0% of category sales).

In General

Most c-stores carry some version of the same general merchandise items, but there are exceptions. Outlets in vacation areas offer items that visitors may have forgotten, such as swim goggles, sunscreen, earmuffs and ski hats.

At Buc-ee’s travel centers, the big box stores of the convenience industry, general merchandise is an art form. The centers, located in Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, offer everything from home dĂ©cor, kitchenware, wind chimes and books to toys, hats and clothing (much of it featuring the chain’s big-toothed beaver mascot).

They also carry merchandise that shoppers may not realize they need, such as deer feeders, fire pits, giant flasks covered in real cowhide, a barbeque pit that retails for $1,200 and snake boots, which aren’t made of snakeskin but instead protect the wearer from snake bites. A recent review in Texas Highways magazine described Buc-ee’s as “a high-end flea market crossed with the nicest Fina station you’ve ever been to.”

Source: CSX;

Still, for many c-store operators, general merchandise “is sometimes a forgotten category,” said Erica Ward, corporate category director, general merchandise for Core-Mark. “It’s hard to manage because of regionality and trying to stay on trend. But you don’t want to be too trendy and order too much. You might be stuck with a bunch of merchandise.”

Ward recommends that 75% of any store’s general merchandise be “tried-and-true top sellers, your everyday items, your technology items.” The remaining 25% can be seasonal and trendy merchandise, and “that’s when you have to be thoughtful about the assortment and order in advance,” she said. “And make sure you have an exit strategy after the season ends.”

What Retailers Want

Convenience retailers want to be the first to offer the next fidget spinner, a toy that millions of people have purchased for about $2 each. Ward is always on the lookout for a big winner, and fortunately, she has a 7-year-old son she can use as a test base. Currently, she sees potential in Funko Pop vinyl toys, small dolls that are available in hundreds of characters, and The Push Pop Fidget Toy, a silicone trinket that kids can pop like bubble wrap. Fortunately—or unfortunately—the toy can be used repeatedly.

Average GM sales per store topped $55,000 annually, and that was a 16.3% increase year over year.

Core-Mark features open stock general merchandise items in the Core Gear catalog, while seasonal and pre-book merchandise is showcased in digital publications. Each company division holds trade shows during the year where retailers can visit one-on-one with vendors. In addition, the Core-Mark app and desktop ordering portal let retailers review new products and promotions and order from the Core Gear catalog and from all other categories.

McLane helps retailers stay updated on trending products and special monthly offers via its McLane EDGE platform. The company also features seasonal or holiday-specific virtual shows on its Virtual Trade Show site, an online ordering platform where suppliers offer deals and discounts.

“We’ve recently launched a sourcing program called McLane Select that features specific product segments,” Smith said. “We can target particular categories through this program and find reputable suppliers with quality products that we can partner with to fill customers’ exact needs.”

Plus, customers can schedule customized sessions with team members to review their item mix against McLane’s extensive data warehouse.

For more information on NACS category definitions, visit Source: NACS State of the Industry Report of 2020 Data

Space Shortage

No room for more general merchandise? No problem. Review store sales data and ditch slow sellers. For example, Wells saw a drop in demand for light bulbs, paper, pencils and office supplies during 2020.

“Today, people use their phones for notes and order light bulbs online,” Ward said. “There are opportunities to get rid of old items and bring in new ones. Think about your demographics and where your stores are. It’s probably easier for the independent retailer. But every area has a sports team—local or professional—and team logo items are a potential ring opportunity. If you do it right and think of general merchandise from a strategy data-sourced point of view, you can make that small amount of space work,” Ward said.

“General merchandise is a way to stay trendy and relevant in your market,” said Bortner of Rutter’s. “And you can offer some core items year-round.”

The Power of CSX Data

CSX, the engine behind category metrics and NACS State of the Industry data, provides current and customizable tools for financial and operational reporting and analysis in the convenience industry. Retailers can measure their company by any of the myriad metrics generated via our live database. Contact Chris Rapanick at (703) 518–4253 or [email protected] for a complimentary executive walkthough.

Pat Pape

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at