Though more c-stores strive to attract a younger customer base, older patrons are just as valuable.
By Fran Duskiewicz
Often we read in the trade journals about what the convenience industry should do to attract and keep the latest generation of customers.
I’ve been around long enough to remember seminars about Gen X, Gen Y, Echoes, Millennials and whatever we were calling young people at the time. The truth is we’ve done just fine with these younger folks. As long as we pay attention to pop culture and technological developments, they will remain great customers.
Why is that? They grew up with us and learned who we are and what we offer, from the inside out. Growing up, they were not gas customers. Maybe they rode their bikes to our stores, or walked over from school during lunch, or ran inside the store when a parent was fueling up.
We’ve always had the drinks they wanted and the food they liked. School pizza was horrible; ours was great. And anytime we rolled out something new, they were early adopters. They had no preconceived notions about who we were, and, because they came of age just about the time our industry really got its act together in terms of image and improved quality, we’ve always been a great choice for them.
Many boomers call our stores “gas stations.” Read a Stephen King novel and one of his classic boomer characters will call a c-store a “Stop & Rob.” My real estate agent, who is about my age, told me she pictured lousy sandwiches and burnt hot dogs when she thought of c-stores. She said she would need to be desperate to actually buy something to eat there.
Every so often, neighbors in central New York tell me how amazed they were when they stopped in one of our convenience stores and tasted the good food (usually by sampling; you must sample for boomers) and found that grocery items were priced in line with the local supermarket.
Why did such a large chunk of the most profligate generation in American history simply write us off as a bad choice for anything other than gasoline? We were somewhat to blame for that. Throughout much of the 1980s, when many boomers were in their 20s and 30s, we weren’t terrific. We made a bad first impression and unfortunately, it stuck.
Also, as opposed to the next generations, baby boomers needed to learn who we were, from the outside in. Many of us saw garages where we bought gas and had our cars repaired turned into stores. Many of those garages weren’t razed; they were simply repurposed. Food? From there? And we were hung up on achieving gross margin percentages, not realizing that if you didn’t sell an item, the 40% book margin didn’t mean a thing.
Our industry looked at itself in the mirror during the 1990s and made startling improvements in just about every way it could—from beautiful buildings to extremely well-trained and friendly associates. We imported the finest foodservice expertise and hired grocery managers. We adopted category management principles that eliminated insult pricing.
We now scan and use the data to its fullest capabilities.
RAISING THE BAR
Unlike some other industries, our entrepreneurial spirit and drive continually raise the bar higher and higher.
So, why do so many boomers still miss all the improvements? I think it goes back to gasoline. Boomers see the huge canopies and multiple gas islands and think gas station.
We realized that at Nice N Easy when we built our first 7,000-square-foot store and every picture published of it featured the fuel facility. Yeah, we had produce and fresh meats and sit down eating and a full line of grocery items, but what hit the media? Gasoline? That seemed self-defeating to us.
The last two stores Nice N Easy owner John MacDougall designed had the gas island on the side of the store, giving free access to shoppers at the storefront and lessening the fuel impact. It worked and most of our compliments came from baby boomers, especially women.
Other hints: sample, especially out at the gas pumps. Also, promote coupons like crazy. Most boomers love coupons.
Remember, we baby boomers are still around and spending money. Don’t write us off yet. Just be creative and think of ways to overcome our prejudices against the convenience industry.