The Evolution of Convenience Stores

The C-store is doing for “Convenience” what E-commerce has done for “Electronic” over the past quarter-century: evolving the word beyond its dictionary denotation to define it in its truest sense, and expanding its capacities to serve need-it-now customers in faster, handier ways than our grandparents, or even parents, could have imagined.

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C and E are now intertwining to stretch the convenience store’s instant-service characteristic beyond the grab-and-go, fill-‘er-up, one-stop-shopping attributes it has trumpeted since the Southland Ice Company opened America’s first one in Dallas in 1927. That grew into 7-Eleven, the world’s largest convenience-store chain, boasting more than 52,000 stores in 16 nations, with more than 10,300 in North America.

But now 7-Eleven’s CEO, Joseph DePinto, is confessing that consumers are “completely redefining what ‘convenience’ is”—that is, an amalgam of display, digital, and delivery. Online purchasing, quick-as-lightning food service, home delivery, and even retail healthcare clinics are now driving consumer demands for expedience and immediacy in shopping and wellness, as is the growth of electric-vehicle charging stations and Uber/Lyft ride-share apps. These trends could eclipse the convenience store of yore unless it can buy into the click-and-collect craze to make C as fast as E.

“I believe it is going to continue to be very challenging to stay successful in the convenience store business,” said SGA Principal Mitch Garrett, AIA. “One challenge is getting people into the C-store for additional purchases as fuel needs change and home delivery options and convenience increase. Another is providing better food options and speeding up the checkout process, which also has an impact on fuel purchasers going into the store. C-stores cannot survive on fuel purchases alone. So the key is to get people into the store.”

Shoppers at Amazon Go scan a special app at an electronic turnstile to kickstart the process of purchasing ready-to-go lunches, meal kits, wines, beers, and/or limited groceries. Here, “click” replaces “ka-ching”: no more cashiers, cash-registers or check-out counters. Digital cameras track a customer’s every move, and weight sensors note what is taken off shelves, drawing on sensor fusion and deep-learning algorithms to record all items in the customer’s virtual cart and issue an accurate bill on the app for e-payment. Amazon Go is in part a response to the preponderance of foodservice among consumer preferences for C-stores, according to global consulting firm AlixPartners’ recent Convenience Store Consumer Study of 1,018 consumers from all income levels, demographics, and U.S. regions. Almost 50% of the study respondents said they would forego conventional convenience stores if an Amazon Go opened near them. Moreover, 70% favored home delivery from C-stores.

Speed of service, quality and authenticity of food, and meal prep are being ramped up at many C-stores, bidding an unfond farewell to the greasy hotdogs and gooey grilled-cheese sandwiches many of their precursors proffered. For instance, the Eastern European chain of Fresh Corner’s MOL stores offers diverse fresh selections made that day, with a readiness unseen since the Automat, but of superior caliber. Other C-stores have food carts of specialty fare similar to that of food trucks in cities.

The convenience store/gas station combo has a contender, too: more consumer demand for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, in light of growing concern about fossil fuel depletion and climate change from gas-guzzler exhaust. Of the EV drivers who participated in AlixPartners’ survey, 89% said a charging station at a C-store would motivate them to shop there. Indeed, Walmart is spearheading this market, aiming to have more than 1,000 charging stations handy at its stores. Other C-stores charging up include QuickChek Corp., Maverick Inc., Sheetz Inc., and even BP (British Petroleum).

Car convenience is figuring into delivery, too. Zarco USA is harnessing Apple Pay to enable consumers to order their eats on touchscreens while charging or fueling their cars, and then their goods are delivered right to their vehicles, hastening food-fuel shopping as never before.

Health and wellness centers, staffed by physician assistants and nurse practitioners, are also going under the C-store rubric, expediting health services beyond long waiting times for emergency rooms and limits on primary care physician hours. Now care for minor illnesses, screenings, evening and weekend care, and smartphone connections to blood-pressure monitors and other medical devices have never been easier. Retail health centers are also offering wellness programs: fitness classes such as aerobics and weight training; diet planning courses; and general guidance on healthier lifestyle decisions.

With more than 2,000 retail clinics in chain stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets throughout the U.S., that number can only grow, in part because their health services often cost less than in medical centers—as low as $59 for a cholesterol screening at CVS or a wellness appointment at Walmart. Besides, the presence of healthcare convenience in C-stores encourages more shopping there in general, as one-stop shopping just added another consumer need: basic health and well-being.

These trends are causing as much revolution in C-store design as in service. The absence of checkout counters yields more open space for more prominent displays of a wider variety of goods, as well as freer circulation for consumers; no more meandering through perplexing labyrinths of narrow aisles. This open-plan design also displays more goods more clearly through large storefront windows, giving passers-by better reasons to come into the store if they know in advance what’s inside.

With food service, health service, electronics, and open space combining as a cluster of consumer convenience, the C-store will be one-stop shopping in the truest sense.


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