As COVID-19 disrupts lives and businesses across the globe, U.S. convenience stores are experiencing different realities depending on their location, but many are already adapting by evaluating new opportunities to meet changing customer needs in the midst of chaos.
At press time, California, Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington closed bars and restaurants beginning Monday, March 16, in effort to slow coronavirus, while internet rumors swirled — and which The National Security Council warned are “fake” — that a national lockdown could be imminent. As lockdowns emerge, tech-forward companies already offering order-ahead, pick-up at store and/or delivery may see an advantage as customers look for alternate ways to buy products while staying home.
Amazon has seen such an uptick in delivery orders that it announced plans to hire an additional 100,000 temporary employees and raise wages. Convenience stores have an opportunity to also step up on delivery.
C-stores have many advantages over other channels, Mel Kleiman, founder of Humetrics pointed out. For example, they don’t usually have the long lines grocery stores are known for, making them ideal stops for people concerned with social distancing.
“Yes, there are going to be major disruptions in your operations, but let’s figure out how to make it a positive for growth, customer retention, employee involvement, as well as positive PR for your company and the industry as a whole,” he said. Savvy c-store retailers are looking for the opportunities, whether that means figuring out ways for customers to order at the pump, or passing out DIY hand sanitizer recipes or considering new ways to offer support to parents or communities.
On March 16, Alltown Fresh, which operates four locations — two in Massachusetts and two in Connecticut — announced on Twitter that it was introducing order ahead and curbside pickup at its Massachusetts locations. Customers can call to place their order, and then call again when they arrive. The items are brought to the car, reducing social contact. “Stay tuned for the rollout to our (Connecticut) locations,” Alltown Fresh tweeted.
Ashland, Ky.-based Clark’s Pump-N-Shop, with stores in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida, also took to Twitter to remind customers that its drive-throughs are an option for picking up supplies. The chain also announced that it’s hiring at all locations.
Wawa, Pa.-based Wawa, which operates more than 860 c-stores in seven states, also posted on Twitter to educate customers about its delivery services.
Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz, which operates 600 stores in six states, tweeted to remind customers about its mobile app, which has a mobile point-of-sale so customers can scan, pay and go quickly without worrying about lines. It also allows customers to order ahead made-to-order foodservice items and pick them up curbside or in-store.
The View From California
In California, despite slower store and gas volume on Monday, March, 16, Rotten Robbie Gas Stations saw an uptick in non-edible grocery and take-home water sales, said Reilly Robinson Musser, vice president of marketing and merchandising for Robinson Oil Corp. dba Rotten Robbie Gas Stations, which operates 34 c-stores in California.
Most schools in the area are closed for at least three weeks, and tech companies, such as Apple, Google and Facebook are allowing employees to work from home. “Restaurants are empty and people seem to be taking things seriously,” Musser said.
Robinson Oil sent guidance information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to all employees and provided extra hand sanitizers and gloves. It’s asked employees to take precautions as far as social distancing, etc. Employees are asked to stay home if they are feeling sick and area managers are keeping in touch with all employees. They’re asking people to be flexible with scheduling to help accommodate those who have to stay at home with kids or who are out sick.
Raymond Huff, president of Denver-based HJB Convenience Corp., which operates 19 Russell’s Convenience stores in four states, began to see the effect of COVID-19 last Wednesday, March 11. “Our stores are in the central business districts of Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco. Sales were off 12% on Wednesday, 18% on Thursday and 22% on Friday. Prior to the crisis sales were trending up about 7%,” he said.
While Russell’s is a tech forward company, offering frictionless checkout through the SKIP app, as well as two Russell’s Express micro marts, the buildings where the micro marts operate have emptied, making identifying new opportunities more of a challenge.
At its convenience stores employees are allowed to wear masks, if they choose and are washing hands every hour as well as when they touch surfaces, such as stainless steel. “We are sanitizing all surfaces where customers touch hourly with the bleach and water mixture required by the health department,” Huff said.
All Russell’s Convenience employees receive sick leave and vacation time. Huff added each area is implementing a plan of action.
“In my opinion, the U.S. should just close everything down for two weeks, let this thing run its course and get us back to business,” Huff said.
Silver Linings in Chicago
Following news of the bar and restaurant ban in Chicago, The PRIDE Store’s Owner & CEO Mario Spina noted the chain’s brewery and tasting room would be closed but customers could still purchase the brand’s packaged beer inside its 15 Chicagoland PRIDE Convenience Stores, plus any other locations that sell 93 Octane. The c-store chain’s restaurants — which include Urban Counter, Taco Urbano and Pride Café — will continue to offer carry-out and delivery through Uber Eats.
“With many grocery stores being hit hard by consumers stocking up on products, our restaurants could continue to be busy because of the lack of options available,” Spina said.
Stores were busy ahead of the lockdown. “We have seen stores run out of dairy products, cleaning supplies and other miscellaneous home items. We are in the process of increasing the inventory carried at each store to be able to provide those core items to our customers,” Spina said.
Protocols are changing too. Each cashier must wear plastic gloves during their shifts. The usually 24/7 stores are now closing from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. for a deep sanitation, although dispensers remain open for fueling.
“We will also sanitize our dispensers (keypads and nozzles specifically) multiple times throughout the day. Luckily, a few years ago we installed hand sanitizers at each door for our customers,” Spina said.
Managers are instructed to keep an eye out for team members showing flu-like symptoms. “Open communication regarding this is crucially important,” Spina said.
Convenience stores across the country are beefing up their store sanitation and employee hygiene practices and alerting customers to the changes they are making to keep them safe.
As CStore Decisions reported yesterday, Sheetz and Kum & Go both announced plans to extend paid sick leave to employees impacted by the virus.
The c-store industry is no stranger to transformation in difficult times. It evolved from two-bay garages servicing cars to gas stations with “Cokes & smokes” shops to foodservice powerhouses offering frictionless checkout options. If there’s one thing this industry excels at it’s finding success by thinking outside the box amid changing circumstances.
Humetric’s Kleiman pushed convenience retailers to think in terms of opportunities they can be building now when customers need them most. “The question to you is, what can you do to not only survive, but thrive?”
For more stories about how c-stores are responding to COVID-19 click here.