C-stores of yesteryear just won’t cut it in today’s more sophisticated and diverse convenience channel. While many of the same products remain, they are being overshadowed by restaurant-quality foodservice programs, high-end beverage offerings and beer caves that rival some liquor stores.
Savvy c-store retailers are successfully modernizing their locations to best attract today’s high customer expectations.
A Different Prototype
7-Eleven’s Lab Store concept, built from the ground up in Dallas, features modern fixtures and an updated design that is different than its traditional format. The Irving, Texas-based chain began construction on the Lab Store location in the fall of 2018 and officially opened its doors on March 4 of this year.
“The store features a beer cave and growler station with local and craft beer, cider and ales; a made-to-order drink station; a new beverage platform with items such as nitro cold brew, kombucha on tap and soft serve ice cream; a sweet cold treats bar with frozen yogurt bar and multiple mixes and add-ins,” said Chris Tanco, the 66,579-store chain’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We also feature Laredo Taco Co., which made its Dallas-Fort Worth debut at this store as well as indoor and outdoor dining areas.”
The primary goal of the concept store is to enhance the 7-Eleven customer experience, and the Lab Store will allow 7-Eleven’s Store Evolution Team to test new concepts as well as digital initiatives in a real-life, real-time environment.
When Don Rhoads, owner of Vancouver, Wash.-based The Convenience Group LLC (TCG) bought the company in 2000, many of its 10 company-owned Minit Mart Stores (it also has five franchised locations) were built in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The plan was to change the look of the stores to complement the communities in which they are operating.
One store, built in 1972, operated on a site that held a similar store since 1930.
“A neighbor gave me a photo of the original store, and we thought it would be cool if we could duplicate it,” said Rhoads. “We ended up remodeling the store to accentuate the community’s history. …”
Along with personalizing each store’s story in relation to its community, the offerings are now more diverse and include a mix of grocery items, including fruits and vegetables.
In particular, beer is big in TCG’s stores, and in some is attributed to 30% of sales.
“We’re the largest small-format seller of craft beer in southwest Washington and one of the top five sellers in the state,” said Rhoads. “Beer and wine is our brand, and we carry a lot from the Northwest.”
Its store updates included both the interior and exterior, with truss roofs and décor unique to the Pacific Northwest, including a lot of wood as an element of the design.
“We’re also big on cooler infrastructure, whether it’s the freezer, walk-in or doors,” said Rhoads. “We finished stores with 30 doors because I want to keep all the product behind these.”
This also increases efficiency, as it prevents team members from having to go from one end of the store to another loading products.
“We’re currently working on three large developments, one of which is a 5,000-square-foot store,” said Rhoads. “All will have a larger footprint and a Northwest feel.”
In the first quarter of 2019, Atlanta-based RaceTrac was busy making design tweaks to its 5.5 prototype.
“After about 18 months of planning, tweaking and perfecting, we’re proud to announce our 5.5 2.0, our newest store prototype,” said Brandon Collier, the 670-store chain’s director of architecture and design. “Our goals with the redesign were to get our advanced grab-and-go foodservice offering in our stores and make updates to our store layout to make the guest path through the store simpler and more enjoyable.”
Upgrades were also made to exterior patios, and store interiors were opened up for improved product visibility.
“We also made tweaks to the back of house, adding a delivery door and optimizing the floor fixture layout based on guest flow and store operations,” said Collier.
The first 5.5 2.0 opened in Hickory Creek, Texas at the beginning of April. RaceTrac is also expanding into Tennessee with this prototype. The chain plans to open seven Tennessee store locations this year and a total of 50 stores by 2023.
Overhauling the coffee program was a priority early this year for Flory’s four locations in Hopewell Junction, Mahopac and Fishkill, N.Y.
“We rehabbed coffee counter areas with new cabinetry, granite counters and tile backsplashes,” said Partner Jamy Flory. “We pulled out our existing coffee brand and brought in Flory’s Café. It was well-received and makes more sense financially.”
When it was discovered that there was a push for craft beers, unique brews and energy drinks at two of its locations that were short on cooler space, the door cooler was transformed into a mini beer cave.
“We created storage outside and brought in standard stand-up ice cream coolers,” said Flory. “This created more walk-in room and enabled us to expand our beer offerings.”
Stores closed for 24 hours to add LED lighting throughout the store and in the coolers and expand the foodservice program.
“The goal of the rehab was to refresh,” said Flory. “The LED lights have resulted in lower electricity costs and better product illumination in the coolers. Going to an outside cooler box opened up room in the deli area for work space. We now
offer six hot foods daily.”
Walls were removed in two stores, opening up the kitchen area for better customer interaction.
“We also created areas behind the register for vape products and hemp lines, which are huge sellers and growing categories for us,” said Flory.
Updating & Expanding
In the 1960s, one of Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based Open Pantry Food Mart’s first stores in Madison was recognized for innovation. Fast forward to 2018, and the store required significant updating to meet the needs of today’s customers.
“When we decided to totally remodel the store, we realized there was an inappropriate amount of back storage space versus sales floor space,” said James Schutz, managing director of the eight-store chain.
The renovation included pushing the cashier area seven feet to the west and about 20 feet to the north, which opened space for food bars and open-air coolers with grab-and-go and healthy options.
“Before, we didn’t have the opportunity to provide grab-and-go foods, salads and fruits,” said Schutz. “The inside of the store took on a whole different shape and design. It was our goal to open the store up to get in products and food offerings we needed.”
Another issue was the restroom, which only provided access from outside the store. “We kept the restroom location the same, but we installed a hallway for customers to enter the bathroom from inside the store,” said Schutz. Restroom updates also included a new sink, waterfall faucet and stainless-steel dispensers. The revamp took about seven weeks, yet the store remained open.
Open Pantry celebrated the store’s grand re-opening at the end of March. It also recently completed a renovation at its Bayside, Wis., site.
“We expanded the six-foot coffee area to 15 feet and put in a food island and open-air sandwich and salad cooler,” said Schutz.
The Bayside renovation involved removing the side of the building and expanding the store. The renovation took about two months.
With more than 325 stores, North Salt Lake, Utah-based Maverik Inc. is involved with 140 update projects each year, and has a dedicated department to handle site expansions, remodels and acquisitions.“Some are very simple, like switching out a bakery case, and some are total remodels,” said Sarah Kovac, Maverik’s director of architecture and engineering.
With some sites attracting increasing traffic and tour buses, the company decided it was time for extensive restroom expansions to accommodate these customers.
“Most will double in size, combining the existing men’s and women’s rooms into one and adding an additional restroom on the exterior,” said Kovac. Maverik added tile on both the floors and walls and updated the fixtures and lighting. The exterior landscape graphics on the walls of the stores’ floor are mimicked in the restrooms.
“We’re always looking at new materials and colors,” said Kovac. “We have an analytics group that analyzes all data pre- and post-remodel and makes tweaks to programs to increase the return on those investments.”