C-store retailers are investing in their coffee bars, upgrading equipment and cross merchandising to recapture sales, which declined during COVID-19. Those efforts appear to be paying off for c-store operators.
In its fall “2022 National Coffee Data Trends” report, the National Coffee Association (NCA) stated that while out-of-home coffee consumption has yet to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels (36% of coffee drinkers in January 2020), they are coming close with 33% of past-week coffee drinkers buying coffee away from home at least four times per week. Another 56% purchase it away from home one to three times per week.
At Englefield Oil Co.’s Duchess convenience stores, with 120 locations in Ohio and one in West Virginia, coffee sales have not only rebounded from the pandemic over the past six to nine months, but have increased over pre-pandemic levels, according to Nathan Arnold, Englefield’s director of marketing.
“Coffee was one of the last categories to come back to normalcy in our stores after COVID-19, but we have been making significant investments in the look and merchandising opportunities at our coffee bar and all that has been paying off,” he explained.
Over the past year, Duchess has upgraded its coffee brewers to equipment that is easier to clean and maintain. A series of indicator lights that can be seen from across the room alert staff if the equipment needs attention or a fresh pot needs to be brewed.
“We tested bean-to-cup equipment, but our customers didn’t want to take the time to brew their own cup,” he noted.
Duchess offers three different roasts: a signature house blend, a decaf and a dark blend. Different flavored creamers and some seasonal limited-time offers allow guests to customize their cups.
Self-serve cappuccino and iced coffee are also available.
The company is looking at expanding its coffee options to include cold brew and seasonal blends. To make the coffee purchase into a more holistic experience for the customers and a higher ring for the stores, Duchess has added more on-counter or adjacent displays and racks with signage for cross promotion with its own and consumer packaged goods brands of snack cakes, granola bars, doughnuts and other complementary items.
“We see strong sales with bundling,” Arnold noted.
Promotions such as a loyalty club buy-five-cups-and-get-the-fifth-free offer also boost coffee sales, he added. Recently, Duchess has introduced coffee delivery via Uber Eats.
“It’s been doing pretty well in our urban markets, and we expect delivery demand to increase during the winter,” he stated.
Coffee Sales Returning
In 2020, Southwest Georgia Oil Co.’s SunStop Convenience Stores and Markets, which has 78 locations throughout Florida, Alabama and Georgia, totally revamped its traditional coffee brewing equipment with bean-to-cup equipment in all its stores. Since then, coffee sales have increased, although Michelle Weckstein, director of food and beverage brands for SunStop, hesitated to attribute that growth solely to the equipment swap.
“We’re seeing our overall store traffic count slowly coming up to pre-pandemic levels,” Weckstein explained. “We do know that coffee accounts for 14% of our total food sales and is a driver for getting people to come into our stores, especially over the colder months.”
In some of the rural stores that serve an older demographic, a more familiar soft-heat brewer holds fresh-brewed coffee to accommodate morning traffic.
Each store offers nine different coffee options — three basic hot (house, morning and dark blends) and three each of flavored hot and cold brews. Every 60 days a limited-time offer (LTO) flavored hot or cold brew is included in the mix.
One ever-popular promotion is the bundling of coffee with a large, proprietary-branded cookie. Loyalty app users can also get one hot coffee free with the purchase of six cups.
A couple of years ago, the company experimented with barista-made coffees. First, the concept was introduced in a store located in a college town and when that didn’t take off it was moved to an upscale neighborhood. That site was no more successful.
“Our clientele seems to be satisfied with the customization options we offer at our coffee bars,” Weckstein noted. “But just to give them another customization option, we are planning to add flavored syrups to the condiment mix.”