Raise your hand if you had the word “pandemic” in your strategic plans at the start of 2020, and yet, unexpectedly, the world quickly changed as COVID-19 arrived.
While convenience stores were spared total closure during the lockdowns and volumes were off – i.e., fuel – most survived. Now, with a changed landscape, c-stores can optimize on new marketplace opportunities. But your strategic planning will need an overhaul to adapt to the ever-changing new world as there is an evolving customer playing field impacting store operations, design, management and safety procedures.
We have faced profound changes before. 9-11 forever changed the way we travel. Prior to 9-11, it was a bit of the wild west. No security lines; meeting people at airport gates; and carrying on items that today would get you arrested – or worse. 9-11 fostered the TSA; Homeland Security; and the Patriot Act. The past 20 years haven’t gone backwards but rather, have enhanced the levels of surveillance all under the umbrella of keeping us safe. We as a nation (and world) were fundamentally changed from that point on.
Ten years ago, a different game-changing event hit us right beside the head: the Financial Crisis. What do you mean I can no longer get a mortgage that exceeds the value of my home? Or pay only interest? Why do you need to know my credit score? It is hard to believe that 10 years ago, you could secure a six-figure loan with nothing more than a handshake. The Financial Crisis said “Nope, not anymore.” Now, full documentation, minimum down payments; “Know before you owe” mandates; and Qualified Mortgage Standards are all part of the lending process.
Now we are faced with the mother of all disruptions: The COVID-19 pandemic. With no disrespect to the war on terror or the housing/financial crisis, if you were renting in Des Moines, Iowa, you may not have felt the effect of either. The pandemic spared no one and everyone’s life was impacted. From concern over our health stemming from an unknown enemy to how we function in our everyday life, our lives were put into turmoil. Think about all the changes we have faced over the past few years:
- Supply chain disruptions
- Labor shortages
- Business model changes made on the fly: home delivery, e-commerce and curbside pickup
- Remote workplaces
- Travel coming to a screeching halt
- Business closures
Just a few of those changes would be hard enough, let alone all of them concurrently. So, how do we respond? C-store operators (and all retail) need to look at these five areas to maneuver through this ongoing pandemic and emerge in a more resilient fashion for a new breed of customer:
Create a Safe Environment: Without a doubt, this is the most important consideration. Without a safe environment, customers will not return. Just like a restaurant that has a case of foodborne illness, one safety slip by your c-store can have devastating effects. In fact, not only do you want to ensure a safe environment, but you will want to go out of your way to promote the steps you have enacted to protect your customers safety. Establish new cleaning protocols that will address daily, weekly and monthly routines. These are the new table stakes in the pandemic world.
Expand Ways of Transacting Business: Prior to the pandemic, probably 95% of all c-store business was carryout only. The customer visited the store; shopped a bit; made a purchase; and walked out. Now, buying options have expanded to curbside pickup, pre-ordering through an app, drive-through and delivery. The customer’s desire for expanded transactional opportunities stems from one reason: a need to feel safe. They still want to buy your products; they just want to do that in the safest way possible. So, your business model must expand as the consumer demands it or be left behind as obsolete.
Over-Communicate Process Changes Through Marketing: Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. Ten person gatherings are OK, but not 12 (unless they are your family). Think of all the messaging we have heard over the last few years on what we can and cannot do to stay healthy. It has been overwhelming contradictory, inconsistent and ever changing.
How can you expect your customers to know what the protocols are at your location, if they are always changing? I can’t stress this enough — operators need to over-over-over communicate to their customers the new rules for their locations. How can they order? What are your hours? Do I need a mask? Is this product still available? It is daunting for customers – go overboard in trying to help guide them. Think about treating your store messaging as a grand re-opening.
Create a Foodservice Destination: While the c-store industry was deemed essential and allowed to operate during the pandemic, the restaurant industry did not share that same luxury. There are estimates that 15-20% of all restaurants will not re-open. C-stores that had established foodservice offerings before COVID, were positioned nicely to reap the benefits of this unprecedented environment. Those that continued to delay launching into food, missed a golden opportunity. While arriving late to the game may not have been optimal, foodservice still must be a key driver for your store moving forward.
Design Your Store with Flexibility in Mind: As your customer shifts from carryout only to other modes of transactional activity, you may want to consider how your store is configured to accommodate this shift. If 50% of your customer base, for example, gets their products through drive-through, pickup or delivery, does that mean your store should be designed with that in mind? Do you create a store environment that becomes a warehouse where product orders are assembled by employees as opposed to shopped by customers? These transactional shifts have happened overnight, and stores need to begin adapting to the new world.
I wish this pandemic story had a definitive ending as a launching point, but sadly, the world will continue to evolve. Every new variant – i.e., Delta and now Omicron – could set us off on a completely different tangent from where we are today. The pandemic has forever changed our world and paradigm shifts that normally move at glacial speed are in turbo-mode.
John Matthews is the president and CEO of Gray Cat Enterprises and is responsible for the management of all consulting activities for the firm, which include retail consulting for multiunit operations; interim divisional or general management leadership; consumer marketing for companies launching products in the retail sector; and strategic project management. With more than 30 years of senior-level experience and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written “Game-Changing Strategies for Retailers,” which is available on Amazon. In addition, he has two step-by-step manuals, “Local Store Marketing for Retailers” and “How to Stage a Killer Grand Opening!,” which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.