Designing Food Destinations

Retailers are using design to support the image of c-stores as a destination place for food.

By Scott McKinney, Contributing Editor

A shift to foodservice is dominating convenience store strategies as retailers work to counter declining cigarette sales. Retailers are using design to support the image of c-stores as a destination place for food.

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“Many new convenience stores in the U.S. are being designed—and many existing ones are being remodeled—to reflect that consumer foodservice sales are more integral of the channel than ever before,” said Bob Hoyler, research analyst at Euromonitor International.

“For example, one increasingly common design aspect of convenience stores is the inclusion of a limited amount of seating, which allows shoppers to sit down in the stores and eat hot food while it is still fresh.”

Hoyler said convenience stores have capitalized on this trend by placing a greater emphasis on their consumer foodservice operations, rolling out an expanded selection of hot takeaway meals.

When considering the design of new stores or remodels, it’s important to consider your stores’ key differentiator, what draws people to it over the competitors, and center the design on that area, according to John Schaninger, founder and owner of the Schaninger Group.

“The biggest difference today is with the changes in cigarette and fuel visits, there has been an increased focus on foodservice,” said Schaninger. “As younger consumers delay or forego purchasing cars, and cars become more fuel efficient, fuel gallons are also declining, and overall c-store food sales have grown by 43% over the past 10 years—that’s the big differentiator for many operators.”

Schaninger noted stores don’t have to be huge to attract food customers.

“It is important to understand flow—you want to provide a clean, open, easy flow for the customers.”

A few elements of stores he sees that are important in terms of design and function might include a place where customers can enjoy food and linger, areas for self-checkout and kiosk ordering as customers become more technologically adept.

Joe Bona, founding partner at Bona Design Lab, sees design taking a support role for convenience stores, with customer service and food quality being the centerpiece.
“C-stores are becoming a destination place for food, and they are trying to communicate that they are legitimate and competitive,” Bona said. “In the old days, you used to have imposing, in-your-face designs saying ‘beverage area’ or ‘food area,’ but now it’s more about emphasizing quality and customer service.”

Today, Bona is seeing more neutral colors and less graphic imagery work well. Lighting is important, along with technical design, and parts that are improved by digital technology such as digital menu boards and signs.

Sun Stop’s internal design team recently partnered with a design group to develop a new design, for its 80 stores in southern Alabama, southwest Georgia and northern Florida.

“The new image features bright colors—yellows, reds, and blues—that really pop. We wanted to reflect our geographic location so we incorporated features, such as a sun halo over the cashier, that really add dimension and make a good feeling for our customers,” said Spencer Thomas, brand manager at Southwest Georgia Oil, which operates Sun Stop.

The retailer includes three different c-store concepts under the name: Sun Stop, Sun Stop Market and Sun Stop Urban Market. All three of these concepts differ in size, offering and location, but have similar design and color to create brand recognition.

“We are in the process of getting out this new image to all of our company-operated stores and creating this brand recognition with our customers, and in 2019 we’re working on getting this image out to our owner-operated stores,” Thomas said.

The chain recently opened a new on-campus store and deli at Florida State University (FSU).

“It isn’t your traditional c-store, as it’s located on FSU’s campus. Probably 95% of the customers of that store are college students on their way to or from class or game day, and we’re learning a lot about what kind of foods they like and how they like to be marketed to,” Thomas said. “We’re learning more about the Millennial and Gen Z customer, then expanding that to our other stores.”

He noted that the store doesn’t sell fuel, but is selling significantly more beer than initially forecasted.

Sun Stop stores average 3,000-4,000 square feet, but the company recently acquired three, 12,000-square-foot Walmart Neighborhood Markets to convert.

“These are bigger than c-stores, offer a convenience section, deli section and grocery section, along with fuel outside,” Thomas said.

Fremont, Ohio-based FriendShip Food Stores is utilizing store design as part of its effort to transition its 26 stores into one-stop destinations for food, fuel and convenience, said Greg Ehrlich, president of Beck Suppliers, which operates the FriendShip chain.

“Building trust with consumers that we are offering restaurant quality food requires integrating best practices from quick-service restaurants and fast casual design trends,” Ehrlich said. “In addition to making stores larger, we are also incorporating colors and building materials more often associated with the food industry.”

He emphasized the importance of the store teams in fulfilling this mission. “Anyone can build large, beautiful stores, and stock them with product. True, long-lasting success begins and ends with our talented store teams, who are led by a blend of new and seasoned retail and food division managers and trainers.”

The company incorporates a blend of static and electronic signs in its design, Ehrlich said.

“Static signs are used to drive key messages for programs and promotions while digital signs help garner attention and drive emotional impulse with the use of enhanced imagery.”

Ehrlich emphasized the role Millennials are playing in influencing store design. “We value all of our customer relationships, however, our most recent design changes are geared to meet the unique expectations of Millennials. They’re looking for customization and instantaneous gratification. They’re impulsive, they want it now and they want it their way. It’s a tough group to serve, but if you figure them out, they’re very rewarding.”

He also reiterated the c-store company’s commitment to a customer-centric design perspective. “We observe customer behavior and conduct customer intercepts to drive future design enhancements. What worked 10 years ago, does not work as well today, and what works today will surely not be as relevant five years from now.”