Grow Your Career Here

From problem-solving to customer service, the skills acquired at c-stores give workers valuable experience that helps later in their careers.

Grow Your Career Here

February 2019   minute read

On behalf of NACS, strategic research firm PSB conducted n=35 in-depth interviews via telephone among former convenience store, gas station or mini-mart employees nationwide.
Seeking out individuals who are successful today, PSB recruited across regions and current industries to find a diverse set of former employees. By definition, all former employees interviewed had to meet the following criteria: currently employed full-time at the manager level or higher, has an annual household income of at least $100,000, has completed at least some college education, and at least 30 years old.
These conversations took place from January 10 to April 13, 2018, facilitated by professionally-trained PSB interviewers using a structured discussion guide. In order to protect the anonymity of the individuals who participated, the names cited in this article have been changed.

Industry sentiment suggests that hiring, training and retaining top-notch employees is still a challenge. The U.S. unemployment rate is low—3.9% as of December 2018—minimum wage hikes in some cities and states put pressure on a labor pond where many industries are fishing, and employees of all ages are more selective in where they choose to work.

NACS Research Committee Chairman Andy Jones commented from the 2018 NACS State of the Industry Summit stage that everyone in the industry “knows it is getting harder and harder to find good people.” He cited one factor that affects retailers’ bottom lines: It takes approximately 31 days for retailers to fill a vacant job—nearly four times as long as in 2006, when it took just eight days.

Jones, who is the president and CEO of Sprint Food Stores in Augusta, Georgia, said that for industries that are contracting, this expanded hiring time frame has resulted in minimal disruption, but “since our industry is one that is growing, we need people … And not only do we need people, we need good people.”

He also noted that hourly workers want more training and a clear path for career development—a long-term concern that retailers should acknowledge when onboarding new talent—and oftentimes, new talent comes from people entering the workforce for the very first time, or from those searching for second jobs to supplement their income.

With this in mind, NACS sought to uncover insights from people who worked previously in a convenience store. For many, that experience may have been their very first job—though it was frequently a positive, rewarding experience that provided skills that continued to benefit them even later in life.

In early 2018, NACS partnered with strategic research firm PSB to conduct nearly three dozen interviews among former convenience store employees to learn about their experience. To encourage candid, honest and direct answers, PSB advised the respondents that their names would remain anonymous. Based on their responses, here are the key takeaways:

  • Working in a convenience store offers a beneficial experience. Virtually everyone interviewed reflected positively on their experiences, and today view their past challenges as growth opportunities.
  • Convenience store jobs provide a great training ground for developing people skills. Nearly all respondents said learning how to serve frequent and new customers, as well as work with other employees, gave them a leg up throughout their career.
  • Customer interactions are central to the convenience store experience. Stories about their time interacting with customers are the most common top-of-mind recollection about the job and “the customers” tend to be the most common enjoyable aspect they recall. Former c-store employees overwhelmingly preferred interactions with customers to those with their co-workers.

“Although the convenience retailing landscape has dramatically changed since most of the survey respondents worked in a store, we found that there were a few noticeable themes woven throughout the interviews,” said Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. “One stood out among them all: Convenience store jobs teach how to interact with people, especially the customers—a skill that is transferable to virtually any career.”

“Our stores serve 165 million customers a day, but it goes much deeper than that. Over and over we heard that convenience store employees can change someone’s mood and literally make a customer’s day better,” Lenard said. “That is a powerful statement on how convenience stores enhance the communities they serve, and a great story to tell.”

You’re Hired!

Receiving a paycheck is an obvious reason these individuals took a convenience store job, but another attribute they cite is convenience. Almost one-third said convenient location or work hours factored into their decision to work in the store: Ten respondents said they decided to take the job because of the store’s proximity to their home and the flexible working hours, especially for high school and college students.

Convenience store jobs teach how to interact with people, especially the customers.

“I literally saw the store; I lived right up the road,” said Mr. B., a former c-store employee who is now an attorney and partner at a law firm.

Among the five respondents who said they were looking for a new experience, one felt that a c-store was an obvious starting point. “I thought it would be [exciting],” said Mr. O., who worked at a Florida convenience store at age 18. “It was my first real job, and why not start at a convenience store or gas station?”

And then there is this honest response from Mr. L.: “My real reason? The girl that I liked was working there. I was 19.” We’re not sure if a romance ensued, but he did remain on the job. “I stayed there for a long time because I really liked the manager,” he said.

Of the 35 respondents, half said they were promoted during their time working at a convenience store.

“I ended up being the manager of [the] store,” said Mr. D., who began working at a California convenience store at age 19. “After about six months, they made me an assistant manager, [then] they made me an assistant shift manager, and then about six months after that, I became a shift manager.”

Ms. P., who worked a Michigan convenience store for six years, worked her way up to store manager. “I started out cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash during high school,” she said. “Then when I graduated, I was promoted to cashier, and then I was the evening manager. Then I was sent a couple of miles away to the other [store] to be the assistant manager. Then I was the store manager.”

Customer Interactions

Twenty of the 35 respondents said that they found more value in interacting with customers rather than their fellow co-workers. Here’s some of the reasons they shared:

“When you are dealing with customers, you are not trying to manage them or direct them. You are just interacting with them, trying to be personal, and then whatever wants or needs they have, you take care of,” said Mr. W., who worked at a California convenience store at age 16. “It was just more of a person-to-person [thing] as opposed to boss-to-person type of thing. Not that I’m adverse to that, but I think I just enjoyed that more.”

“I probably had more time with the customers,” said Mr. A., who worked at a New York convenience store when he was 16 years old. “There was more to learn from dealing with the public than from the very small number of employees and owners.”

“You got to know the regulars, and so there were relationships there,” said one respondent, noting that the convenience store where he worked was in a community next to federally funded housing. “There were lots of families that came in … I wasn’t exactly sheltered, but I got to meet a lot of diverse people.”

Recalled another respondent: “It was fun; it wasn’t like working, especially in a rural community [where] you get to know your neighbors. If you stop in to grab a soda after work, you’re going to have a conversation. It’s an event; it’s not just a stop.”

“Hey! Aren’t You…”

Among the 165 million customers U.S. convenience stores serve per day, there’s bound to be someone famous who walks through the door. Here are some notable celebrity sightings from respondents:

“I was working the register and a Phillies pitcher, Tug McGraw, came in, and I recognized him right away. I started talking to him, and he was very friendly … I said, ‘It’d be great if you bring a world championship to us.’ He just laughed, and he said, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to do it.’” (The Phillies won the World Series in 1980, with McGraw pitching the series-clinching strikeout.)

“This big bus pulls up, and out walks the band Judas Priest. And here I am, a 21-year-old kid. It was the greatest experience.”

Looking Back

NACS asked respondents how their experiences working at a convenience store helped them later in life, and most of them said they learned how to interact with people.

“I think it helped me be more open, because I’m normally a private kind of person,” said Mr. Z., who began working at an Illinois convenience store when he was 28 years old. “I wasn’t somebody who would try to make friends right away. I think it helped me be a little more outgoing and interactive.”

Ms. M., who started her job at a Texas convenience store at age 31, said she learned how to interact with many different people, including understanding their temperaments. “[You learn] to deal with a lot of people that you probably wish you didn’t have to deal with, but hey, you learn it young, and it will benefit you.”

“I think it taught me to deal with people better,” said Mr. X., who worked at a Pennsylvania convenience store when he was 17 years old. “It taught me to be a little bit patient with people … That was the highlight of the job, really communicating with people because most people were very friendly.”

Several respondents shared how their early convenience store experiences helped shaped their career path:

  • “It makes you more grounded.”
  • “It gave me management skills.”
  • “It gave me a patience and tolerance that I otherwise would not have had.”
  • “It taught me the responsibility of having a job, going to work, getting to work on time, how to deal with taking direction.”
  • “Lots of problem-solving. If something breaks, you have to fix it.”
  • “It gave me a job where I was able to deal with people, and I learned to communicate with people.”
  • “There’s a whole style of leadership that comes out of those early customer interactions.”
  • “Solving problems is the most fun I’ve had throughout my career … I love solving problems, and I learned that from being in a convenience store.”

One former c-store employee recalled the autonomy he had to his job, which helped him build a stronger work ethic. “I remember [washing the floor], and I took it seriously,” he said. “I don’t know why I did … I wanted to make sure it was clean. That kind of struck me as being odd because nobody was watching me. I was working 100% independently.”

First Jobs, Valuable Impressions

While the career paths that respondents have taken since their time working in the convenience industry vary from health care to real estate, they all suggest that their experiences have benefitted their careers and success today.

At age 16, Mr. G. got his first job at a convenience store in New York. The now-64-year-old is a chief operations officer at a computer software firm. What he remembers most about his c-store experience is that the job was a lot more demanding than he thought it would be. “I had a lot to learn, which I didn’t think up front. Being customer-facing and dealing directly with clients was a new thing for me,” he said.

I love solving problems, and I learned that from being in a convenience store.

When asked whether his c-store helped him later in life, Mr. G said, “Oh yeah, I would attend marketing meetings about how to be customer-focused and to me, it was obvious. I think the exposure early on to customers helps with your whole mindset and the way you do things.”

Mr. O. recalls his experiences with customers at age 18, working his first job at a Florida convenience store. “There were a lot of returning customers, and I liked that because you got to know people,” he said. Today, Mr. O. continues to rely on customer service in his retail career, which he credits to his first job. “It opened me up, and it made me see customers or people differently in a retail setting, and I think without that experience, bad and good, it would be different now,” he said. “I think it set me up for the job that I have now, being in retail that early.”

Ms. F. began working part-time at a South Carolina convenience store when she was in high school, and then for three more years while she was in college. “I remember how much fun it was,” she said. “I loved talking with all of the customers and [I got to know] a lot of them over the years that I worked there,” she said. “It was a good way to learn responsibility too … it was really perfect for that time in my life.”

Looking back, these former employees all had positive memories about a lesson—or two or three—our industry taught them, whether it was how businesses operate or how to manage a business. Most of all, they shared that the convenience industry, and the jobs that support it, are about relating to customers and making them feel welcome—skills that are always in demand.

Opportunity Knocks

Echoing the findings from NACS interviews was TV personality Mike Rowe, who talked about convenience store jobs as transferrable skills and opportunities in a NACS Convenience Matters podcast:

“There are a thousand jobs that have tremendous dignity and importance because they lead to the next one. All jobs are opportunities. All careers are certainly opportunities … But to be able to show a kid who’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his or her life: Here’s the route. All right, it started as a cashier, or it started as a dishwasher … where it starts is absolutely as important as where it finishes if you’re trying to get an honest measure of what this career might be like.

Listen to the entire podcast (episode 146: “Rewarding Work Featuring Mike Rowe”).

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