There is a lot of angst out there. And there is a lot of pessimism. You’ve probably seen it in your community, in your stores and even with your family. And let’s not even get started on how that manifests itself on social media.
We have the numbers that back up what you are seeing—or feeling.
Seven in 10 gas customers (70%) say the country is heading down the wrong track, a big jump from the 63% who said so a year ago. Two thirds of consumers (66%) are pessimistic about the economy. Even more worrisome, half of all Americans (50%) now think that things in their own area are headed down the wrong track, a three-point uptick from a year ago. In other words, the problems aren’t just happening to “those folks” in a different state or region.
What’s causing this crisis in confidence? For one, the aftereffects of the pandemic remain top of mind. Most consumers say that life hasn’t returned to normal—and 1 in 5 say their life will never return to the way it was prior to COVID-19.
Crime also is a big concern. Overall, nearly half of all drivers (46%) say crime has increased, compared to only 1 in 8 (13%) who say crime has decreased.
Another point of concern: The gas prices at your stores. Consumer sentiment on the economy is heavily influenced by the price of gas, and 90% of drivers say that gas prices have a “great impact” or “some impact” on their feelings about the economy. What’s more, 83% of all drivers are very or somewhat concerned that gas prices in their area will top $5 a gallon again this year.
Summing things up, consumers are already in a bad mood, and they expect that things will get worse because of the price of a product central to your business.
Don’t be thoroughly depressed though, because there also is good news. There are plenty of opportunities for you to help turn your customers’ frowns upside down—if you appeal to how they are thinking and what they want.
THEY LIKE CONVENIENCE
People like what you sell: convenience.
The 1.5% increase in the convenience store count for 2023 was impressive given all the economic headwinds of the past year. And the 150,174 convenience stores in the country is a staggering number. Let’s put that into context. It’s about the same as adding all the country’s grocery stores (45,380), drugstores (40,008) and dollar stores (37,067 stores), and then throwing in all of the country’s Starbucks (about 16,000 stores) and McDonald’s (about 13,000 stores).
They also like how you sell convenience. Their last experience at a convenience store was excellent or good, say 85% of consumers. Just 2% of the people surveyed rated their most recent experience as poor.
This is especially astonishing considering how many customers shop in convenience stores every day. Convenience stores conduct an estimated 160 million customer transactions a day, meaning that convenience stores serve about half the U.S. population on any given day. Let’s put that another way. It’s very likely that more people went to a convenience store on Super Bowl Sunday than watched the “Big Game,” which had 113 million viewers.
More impressive, customers say they like their customer experience in convenience stores more than in other retail channels: 33% say it’s a better customer experience, compared with 10% who say it’s worse.
It’s not easy to serve millions of people every day—especially in a labor crunch. But customers do value the customer experience our stores provide—and the personal connection. The majority still prefer to check out the “traditional” way—interacting with your teams at the register—although there are some variations by age. Customers under age 35 are almost twice as likely to want to use self-checkout machines (44% vs. 25%).
GETTING THEM TO SHOP WITH YOU
Here’s where things get trickier. People love convenience, but they aren’t necessarily in the best mood as they determine where to shop. How do you tell them why they should shop with you?
First, fueling is not inherently fun for most drivers. By a 3:1 margin, most view it is as a chore rather than something they enjoy. So how do you make it something they enjoy? Make them enjoy their in-store experience.
The price of fuel remains the top reason they pick a specific location to fill up—and the importance of price as the leading factor has greatly increased over the past several years.
It’s critical to get drivers to the forecourt because a record percentage of drivers (59%) say that they go inside the store after they fill up.
Before we get to what drivers do when they come inside the store, let’s look at what they are looking for—and at. It’s clear the basics are more important than ever—safety and cleanliness, especially among women. Those under age 35 over index most on wanting a speedy experience and knowing how you serve the community.
Interestingly, “cares about the community” (29%) scored twice as high as “donates to/supports charitable causes (14%),” indicating that consumers want to hear not just what you do for the community, they want to hear why. And that’s a huge opportunity to tell your story.
Another opportunity is the return of the commuter. While most people say life hasn’t returned to what it was like before the pandemic, some things are moving closer to what life was like in early 2020. Fully three-quarters of all full or part-time workers (77%) now commute at least a few times a week. And more than half (57%) say they commute every day.
And with commuting returning, so is rush hour and the rush-hour customer. After sliding during the pandemic, morning fill-ups have returned, up 3 points from just a year ago and tied for the highest percentage since we tracked this metric.
With the morning fill-up returning and customers wanting to kick-start their day, that’s a perfect opportunity to grow coffee or energy drink sales. And the numbers show that drinks are the most common item purchased.
SO WHAT ... AND WHAT’S NEXT?
While the national average gas price dropped below $3.50 per gallon in mid-February 2023, the shock of record prices in June 2022 is still on drivers’ minds.
Nearly half (46%) of drivers say they are “very concerned” about gas prices hitting $5 a gallon in their area this summer, though only a quarter (25%) think that $5 gas seems “very likely” in their area. But here is the bigger question: What price does gas have to reach before they say they will drive less? The answer: $4.51.
Will gas prices reach $4.51 and would it affect demand? Behavioral economists can debate the second part of that question all day. The bigger question is why people drive and how much they could cut back. After all, most people don’t hit the road because they like driving; it’s because they have an obligation (work, errands, etc.) that requires them to drive.
How do you get more drivers to your store to purchase gas and in-store items? The survey responses indicate that consumers crave a sense of normalcy. They want things to feel like they remember them—even if their memory paints an overly positive picture of the past. They also want the basics associated with Maslow’s hierarchy: Safety, security, cleanliness and full shelves are paramount. And they also want to hear your story. They want to know what matters to you because they do believe that convenience stores matter—and that convenience stores are an integral part of their communities and daily existence.
About the 2023 Survey
NACS has conducted national consumer sentiment surveys since 2007, with a specific focus on fueling issues. (In 2021, questions were specific to COVID-19 and so are not included when looking at multiyear trends.) The 2023 NACS Consumer Fuels Survey was conducted by national public opinion research firm Bold Decision (bold-decision.com). A total of N=1,200 U.S. consumers, including N=1,048 who say they drive and fill up at least monthly, were surveyed from February 17-26, 2023. The margin for error for the study is +/- 2.83 at the 95% confidence level.
When referring to survey respondents, we interchange “drivers,” “consumers,” “Americans,” etc.— they all refer to people who buy fuel at least once a month, unless otherwise indicated.
Want More Info?
NACS has online fuels-related resources that communicate the industry’s voice to consumers and to the media.
Convenience Corner (convenience.org/media/conveniencecorner)
Our blog attracts hundreds of thousands of readers. Some popular, recent fuel-related articles include:
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Got a question that you want us to answer?
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