Sometimes what is old is new again, and for convenience stores, shoppers want their beloved convenience store of old (pre-2020). But at the same time, the shopper has changed, and they expect the c-store to not only change with them and meet their evolving needs but also be a step ahead of them, providing them with innovation and even more convenience, according to results of the 2022 NACS Convenience Voices survey, conducted July 10 through September 10.
“Shoppers want us how they remember us before the pandemic,” said Leroy Kelsey, NACS director of research. “They want us in stock, friendly, fast and efficient. But convenience stores need to be more to shoppers.”
That “more” includes the ability to consolidate their trips. During a time of decades-high inflation and skyrocketing prices, convenience store shoppers want to conserve their resources (gas, time) and move around less, said Kelsey. “When they do move, they’re making sure that they’re getting a lot done at every interaction and at every stop,” he said.
NOW VERSUS THEN
Convenience store shoppers not only expect their experience at a c-store to be the same as prior to the pandemic, but NACS data show those expectations are heightened. When asked why they chose to shop at a certain location, 66.7% of respondents cited a convenient location close to home, work or a sales route— in line with the 2019 survey—and 16.7% cited a modern, welcoming or well-maintained store, compared with 15.9% in 2019.
Of note, 22.6% of respondents answered speedy service and friendly staff, which was 4.7 points higher than those who answered in 2019. In the latest survey, 27.5% of respondents said that products were the reason why they stopped at a particular store, up 8.5 points from 2019.
“Shoppers want the same level of quality interaction they know and love from c-stores, but they now want these same attributes at an above average execution,” said Kelsey.
C-store shoppers are looking for the “three Rs” from convenience retailers, according to Kelsey. First, they want relevance, meaning they want the convenience store to be aligned with their needs and interests (e.g., a specific fuel, refreshment or service). Shoppers are looking for reliability with consistent execution in areas such as overall shopping experience and product availability and assortment, and they also want responsiveness. They want additional complementary products and services that enhance their experience, such as seamless checkout and in-store pickup.
Not surprisingly, nearly twice as many shoppers in 2022 said that price was why they chose a certain store compared with 2019 (29.9% in 2022 vs. 18.5% in 2019). “Inflation is creating price sensitivity,” said Kelsey. “More shoppers are indicating they’re not buying products because they’re too expensive. Price has more of a priority.”
Shoppers want the same level of quality interaction they know and love from c-stores, but they now want these same attributes at an above average execution.”
When shoppers were asked what about the prices made them choose to shop at a particular location, the top answer was low gasoline prices at 55.6%, up 7.5 points over 2019. However, the second answer was loyalty program rewards and discounts at 51.7%, up almost 18 points over 2019.
“More than 1 out of 2 shoppers (57.5%) were members of a convenience loyalty program in 2022, and they want an integrated loyalty program with exclusive, relevant rewards,” said Kelsey. “They want to feel understood and appreciated.”
THE ONE-STOP SHOP
According to the survey data, shoppers are increasingly deciding what to purchase on site, as opposed to a premeditated decision or en route to the convenience store. Nearly 20% (19.8%) of shoppers surveyed decided to purchase their products on site—up from 9.3% in 2019.
“This tells us that shoppers are looking for value and buying bigger baskets, consolidating trips and coming less often,” said Kelsey. “They are looking for deals and can be compelled to purchase unintended items with thoughtful promotion.”
The survey data show that customers are indeed visiting c-stores less often. In 2022, shoppers indicated that they are averaging 2.4 trips to convenience stores each week, which is down slightly from the average of 2.6 in 2021 and 2.7 in 2019.
When shoppers were asked what would make them shop at convenience stores more frequently, 23.3% said a wider product selection. Kelsey said this indicates that shoppers now have higher expectations for assortment, including finding staples and essentials at a convenience store.
When asked what about the products made shoppers choose to shop at a particular convenience store, the top response was, “I can easily find what I’m looking for” at 56.9%, up nearly 7 points from 2019. The second most common response was, “The store is well-stocked” at 46.3%, also up nearly 7 points over 2019. Other top reasons included “good merchandise selection” (34.8%) and “good food prepared in store” (34.3%).
Looking at specific products that are bringing in customers, packaged beverages are key trip drivers. Among the shoppers surveyed, 18.5% indicated that packaged beverages were the most important item out of everything in their basket. In comparison, in the 2019 survey, shoppers were more likely to deem cold dispensed beverages as the most important item to buy on their visit to a c-store. Also in 2019, hot dispensed beverages were the fourth most important item that customers purchased in store, but in 2022, they were the 10th most important item.
“Shoppers shifted to packaged products during the moratorium on dispensed beverages in 2020, and dispensed beverages haven’t fully recovered,” said Kelsey, adding that the commuter still hasn’t returned to a traditional commute in many markets as remote work persists. The trip type of commuting was historically between 32% and 36% of total trips. Now, it stands at 27.0%, up from 25% the prior year.
However, prepared food is now among the top five main items that shoppers indicated purchasing in 2022, with 6.4% of customers saying prepared food was the main thing they planned to buy, up from 5.8% in 2019. “Customers are looking for great food on-the-go, and retailers are leaning into foodservice with new builds to accommodate larger kitchens and renovations that emphasize food preparation and service,” said Kelsey.
Innovation has been a buzzword in the convenience retailing industry for a few years now, with experts saying innovation is what attracts new customers and builds loyalty. While this is true, and convenience stores have been innovating to meet the evolving consumer, the question now is, are those innovations paying off?
“Convenience retailers should be asking themselves, ‘What is the return on our innovations?’ and ‘How do we innovate during a period of uncertainty?’” said Kelsey. “As they look forward, retailers should anticipate shopper needs in 2023, as consumers get back into the swing of things, and how retailers can help shoppers get things done, keeping in mind many shoppers’ budgets have become limited.”
The survey data show that c-store shoppers are responding well to certain trends. When asked what about a certain c-store’s products made them choose to shop at that location, 44.4% cited quality fountain and frozen beverages, up 6 points over 2019. What’s more, 27.9% said quality coffee is the reason they chose to shop at a specific c-store, up 5.6 points over 2019, and 21.2% of shoppers cited the selection of take-home items (up 4.81 points from 2019). On the flip side, not as many customers indicated that pre-packaged food was the reason they chose to shop at a particular retailer, slipping 6.22 points in 2022 over 2019. Easing of food safety concerns during the endemic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consistent availability of prepared food and ready-to-eat meal offerings reduced demand for sandwiches and wraps in 2021. This trend continued in 2022.
Speed and quick service still drive trip occasions.”
Mobile payments are also a more recent innovation that c-store customers are adopting, according to the survey. When shoppers were asked what about the checkout options made them shop at a particular c-store, more than half (51.5%) said mobile payments were the reason—the top answer. The second most popular reason was self-checkout at 44.4%.
“Speed and quick service still drive trips,” said Kelsey. “The convenience store adage of ‘we sell time’ still rings true today, especially as shoppers return to pre-pandemic habits like commuting, kids’ activities and travel.”
A NEW GENERATION
With the evolution of the convenience store shopper comes the entrance of new generations to the c-store shopper demographic, and Generation Z, born in 1997 through 2012, is now having a stronger influence on how c-stores cater to this evolving shopper. “A higher percentage of Gen Z is now legal in terms of the products they can consume from convenience stores, and they’re becoming more independent now, as they’ve started to earn higher incomes,” said Kelsey.
When asked why shoppers decided to visit a convenience store that day, the top reason cited by Gen Z was to purchase gas or charge their vehicle (46.9%), while the top visit reason for millennials, Gen X and boomers was that they wanted something to drink now (44.9%, 44.7% and 49.2%, respectively).
Also, Gen Z is looking to the convenience store to meet their needs for indulgence. In the survey, 22.1% of Gen Z respondents said they decided to visit a c-store that day to treat themselves, compared to 19.0% of millennials, 15.7% of Gen X and 12.7% of baby boomers.
The younger generation is also more likely than other generations to use a convenience store to stock up on items, and they’re more likely to visit a c-store for fill-in trips. “Gen Z is drawn to in-store options that are affordable and offer a one-stop shopping experience,” Kelsey said. “Despite a premium for convenience, products like salty or savory snacks, candy, essentials and staples cost less due to a smaller package size. Gen Z isn’t willing to forgo the convenience of collecting these attachments while stopping in for refreshment or other products and services.”
However, loyalty across the generations was flipped, the survey found. When asked if a shopper was a member of any c-store rewards or loyalty program, 47.4% of Gen Z responded yes, compared with 58.4% of millennials, 61.9% of Gen X and 63.4% of boomers.
They are looking for deals and can be compelled to purchase unintended items with thoughtful promotion.”
Convenience retailers have some work to do when it comes to relevance and alignment with Gen Z incentives. But it makes sense considering that Gen Z is the most diverse and divergent generation in terms of missions, having the highest incidence in 11 out of 15 mission types.
Gen Z favors fresh, sustainable, new and innovative, Kelsey says. “This up-and-coming generation is the first generation to have 24/7 access to the web and social media since birth, and this is reflected in their preference for social media as a platform to interact with convenience loyalty,” he said. They are comfortable providing feedback and reviews as part of their loyalty experience. “In fact, the convergence of offline and online information for entertainment, commerce and communication is essential. Gen Z prefers gamification, sweepstakes and the ability to leverage technology to have products delivered or pay for them digitally in person.” This is something for marketers to keep in mind as they design future loyalty programs.
Opportunities abound for convenience retailers to create a lasting impression among the heightened expectations of the convenience shopper. Seize the chance to reinforce positive new beliefs while shaping emerging habits with innovative offerings and thoughtful change. And that includes enhancements to technology, store conditions, compelling food offerings and world-class customer service. All of these will be needed to meet future growth.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
Convenience Voices is a NACS proprietary syndicated mobile shopper insights program. Through the capabilities of this tool, retailers and suppliers can capture and analyze critical shopper feedback on site at the retail moment of truth. Digital surveys were designed to capture customer experiences, develop a deeper understanding of their motivations and activate shopper behavior against data, and NACS is excited to partner, unlock and share these new insights with you.
Contact Leroy Kelsey, NACS research director, at [email protected], and visit www.convenience.org/voices for more information.