Pandering To Pets

C-stores are reaping rewards by targeting pets … and the humans they have in tow.

Pandering To Pets

September 2023   minute read

By: Terri Allan

Davis Travel Centers in Virginia may have found the solution to the age-old challenge of maintaining customer loyalty at its truck stops and convenience stores: dog parks. “We have a customer at our Stony Creek location who has been visiting for 20 years, beginning with right after we opened our first dog park,” said Greg Manzer, general manager of the four-unit retailer, “although not with the same dog.”

“Dog parks are a great attraction for c-stores,” Manzer said. “They’re the perfect means to bring in people.”

Travelers with pets—whether professional drivers or families on vacation—are indeed a coveted and growing customer base for c-stores. “Pet ownership is on the rise. In 2022, 70% of U.S. households, or more than 90 million families, owned a pet,” reported Matt Ogden, president of Evolution Dog Wash, which markets “plug-and-play” dog wash machines for car washes, travel centers and retail stores. Some 78% of those consumers traveled with their pets last year, he noted.

Mike Hamzeh, general manager of Duke’s Travel Plaza in Mount Vernon, Texas, which features both a dog park and a dog wash, agrees that catering to pet owners can go a long way. The amenities “offer convenience, customer satisfaction and the potential to attract new customers,” the retailer said. “They’re excellent ways to differentiate your establishment and create a welcoming environment for both travelers and their four-legged companions.”

‘Wonderful Surprise’

Dog parks at c-stores and travel centers are certainly on the rise. Love’s Travel Stops, for example, is aggressively adding dog runs at locations that don’t yet feature them. According to Gary Price, executive vice president, more than 370 of the chain’s 600-plus locations feature dog parks. And the company plans to add about 25 parks every year, where space permits, as part of its current remodeling initiative. “That’s the largest interstate network of dog parks in the country,” Price said. Similarly, TravelCenters of America is emphasizing its dog parks in an effort to answer the needs of its loyal professional-driver customer base, many of whom travel with canines. About 250 TA locations feature pet areas, spokeswoman Tina Arundel said, a mix of dog parks and “designated green spaces.”

Response to the availability of dog parks has been overwhelmingly positive, c-store and travel center operators said. “Customers have told us the dog parks are ‘clean and well-maintained,’” Price noted, as well as “a wonderful surprise.” 24/7 Travel Stores in Kansas, which, at press time, offered three Prairie Dog-branded dog parks across its 10 locations, plans to open a fourth next year. “We’ve had a very positive response,” Ted Augustine, president, said. “We particularly know that customers like it when we have to close one down to make repairs, such as to the turf,” he joked. “That’s when they bring it up.” The Kansas dog parks range in size from 2,000 to 4,000 square feet.

The benefits of dog parks are numerous, operators said. “The dog parks are a reason our loyal customers keep coming back,” said Price from Love’s, where the parks are about 50 feet by 100 feet and feature waste stations stocked with bags and seating areas for pet owners. “We see many customers with dogs using Love’s as a one-stop shop along the road, taking advantage of the dog parks while stopping for other amenities.” Hamzeh, Duke’s general manager, added that dog parks help instill a sense of community engagement. “They often serve as social hubs, where pet owners can interact and connect with each other,” he explained. “By providing such a space, you create an opportunity for community engagement and foster a sense of camaraderie among your customers.”

Those benefits outweigh the challenges, the operators agreed. Augustine cited high costs as a deterrent to adding dog parks. “They’re not cheap,” he said. “Between the grass, the irrigation, the maintenance and fencing, it can be a significant investment.” Labor costs can be another consideration. “Adding a customer service, including one for dogs, means some extra upkeep from our staff, who keep the parks clean and maintained,” Price said.

Bath Time

While less common than dog parks, dog washes are also making increasing appearances at c-stores. “We’re getting regular, increased inquiries from gas stations, c-store owners and travel centers,” reported Evolution’s Ogden.

Four TravelCenters of America already feature dog washes, Arundel said, with plans to add more. Meanwhile, Illinois’s Gas N Wash chain of gas stations, car washes and c-stores has been offering pet washes for more than 10 years. Doing so is part of an effort “to make our locations a one-stop shop for our customers—offering fuel, food options, a car wash and a pet wash all in one location,” said Justin Luka, director of car wash operations. Laura Krawisz, senior director of marketing at the retailer, added that the ease of professional dog wash facilities versus an at-home wash leads to a “positive sentiment that can build brand loyalty among customers,” ensuring return visits.

According to Ogden, the primary benefit of dog washes for c-stores is “increased revenue at very high margins.” Pet wash owners generate between $8 and $18 profit per wash, depending on how much they charge customers and their operating costs, such as water, electricity and cleaning products, he said. “The data shows that customers who wash their dogs in our machine spend, on average, 30% more in-store than people who don’t.” Installation of an Evolution machine runs about $15,000, Ogden said, with annual maintenance costs of about $250. Labor costs of the amenity are low, he and Luka agreed, generally only requiring periodic machine cleanings.

Whether it’s merchandise, pet washes or dog parks, savvy c-store operators are finding that if they provide services for man’s best friend, their human companions will show their gratitude. “Making your business pet-friendly could go a long way with brand loyalty and increasing overall sales,” Ogden advised.

Trends in Pet Food

By Shagun Dayal

It’s well-known that leading retailers and convenience stores are amping up their efforts to offer robust foodservice to their customers. But there’s another emerging, high-demand food category: wholesome pet food. According to the NACS Global Convenience Store Industry Report, pet food has emerged as one of the top six growth categories for convenience stores in Europe. The fresh pet food market in the U.S. is estimated to grow by $5.3 billion from 2022 to 2027, according to TechNavio, a leading global technology research and advisory company.

Oppawtunity Awaits

With the pandemic spurring an increase in the number of pet companions, coupled with flexible working hours that mean humans and their pets are together more than ever, there has been a renewed focus on improving the physical health of four-legged babies.

“Our pets are like family members. They deserve healthful meals free of synthetic preservatives, food dyes or anything artificial. Whenever we travel with our two dogs and a cat, we carry food by Purina that caters to our diverse needs, such as grain-free, senior dog food, wet cat treats and so on. I see this as a huge opportunity for convenience stores to foray into this segment and tap into the growing basket size,” said Brian Baker, marketing and merchandising strategist at Warrenton Oil Company.

Warrenton Oil operates FastLane, a Missouri-based chain of c-stores. He agrees that the wave of more focused pet care is hard to ignore. His company already stocks dry pet food and products and is now exploring new options to cater to this expanding segment.

“Sustainable yet eye-catching food packaging will definitely appeal to the eco-conscious consumer. Freshly prepared hot meals in the store could be another attraction for the pet parent,” said Baker.

Points to Pawnder

Higher-end pet foods have not made much of a splash in most convenience stores yet.

“There are challenges, but they are not completely insurmountable, suggested Bob Stein, an industry veteran and former CEO of Dairy Mart Convenience Stores and Kalibrate. “Space crunch along with added cost for shelving and fridge are some factors that discourage convenience store owners from giving the pet food category its due. A solution for this problem could be the setting up of small refrigerators by the pet food or product brands themselves. If there can be a Coca-Cola or Red Bull display cooler fridge, there can be one for pets’ fresh food as well. After all, pet lovers treat them like family, so it would be good business for convenience store operators to have a greater presence of pet food and build customer loyalty.”

“The new-age pet owners are now more conscious of their pets’ overall wellbeing and seek food that addresses specific health concerns, such as weight management, bone health and gut balance. Convenience stores can stock up on products that cater to these specific needs. It’s also important for c-store owners to continuously research about the changing consumer demands of pet parents in their area and pivot accordingly.” suggested Eddie Alvarez, owner of Florida-based Sunshine Gasoline Distributors.

Terri Allan

Terri Allan

Terri Allan is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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