As I step into the role of editor-in-chief, I can’t help but reflect on how much this industry has changed since I first began writing for CStore Decisions as an associate editor in 2009.
In those days, c-store retailers were focused on their core customer “Bubba,” a blue-collar, white male stopping in for cigarettes, beer and snacks, but they were beginning to ponder ways to appeal to women customers — who were less likely to shop at a c-store compared to their male counterparts — in terms of ambiance and product selection. Safety was a key consideration in attracting women, and retailers were lowering store shelves for better visibility and adding LED lighting.
At that time, my only experience in the industry was as a customer. I grew up going to White Hen Pantry in Chicago with my father in the 1980s, which was ahead of its time making fresh sandwiches at its deli. After college, I spent two years teaching English in Japan, where I was amazed at the array of fresh grab-and-go food available at c-stores. Each morning I purchased a custard bun from FamilyMart for breakfast, and in the afternoon, I rode my bike to Lawson to buy fresh sushi and a can of green tea for lunch and marveled at the countless flavors of Kit Kat. I wondered when U.S. c-stores would start offering similar fresh grab-and-go offerings.
In 2009, U.S. c-stores were still struggling with the perception of “gas station food,” but were becoming aware that food sales were going to become key for revenue growth; especially as the federal cigarette tax jumped to $1.01 per pack that April as part of SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), and the Food and Drug Administration gained the authority to regulate tobacco when the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was signed into law that June. Sheetz had recently debuted its MTGo! (Made-to-Go) line of products that included salads and sandwiches. Some chains were partnering with co-brands and quick-service restaurants, but only a few were wading into proprietary offerings.
Industry consolidation, the economy, and cigarette taxes and regulation ranked among top concerns. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We’ve Come A Long Way
Fourteen years later, c-stores are catering to a wider range of customers, as millennials and Gen Z represent the most diverse generations to date. Labor management is an increasing concern, electric vehicle charging is on the rise and foodservice development is top of mind for numerous chains. C-stores are building state-of-the-art locations with foodservice counters front and center. Dash In, featured in our Cover Story this month, is a prime example. The chain has reimagined its store experience to highlight a more food-centric vision with an elevated menu, a refreshed store design and a new visual identity.
Industry consolidation is again a major trend, and tobacco regulatory pressures continue to expand. But perhaps the biggest change is how technology is transforming the way retailers do business.
Today’s c-stores are launching self-checkout kiosks and mobile apps with order ahead and payment capabilities. Dash In, for example, is set to debut a new app this summer that features mobile ordering, payment, delivery and a loyalty program. Customers will be able to purchase fuel, convenience items, foodservice and a car wash, all through the app.
This month’s Future Tech story discusses how automation can offer customers convenience and independence, while freeing up employees so they can provide better customer service. Our Tech Innovation Awards showcase Parker’s, which has relaunched its Rewards app to offer more personalized content that can be curated to each guest’s preference and behavior, and Casey’s, which has developed an order fulfillment app and is leveraging artificial intelligence and offering delivery.
Amidst the changes, what has stayed constant through the last 14 years is that c-stores remain committed to offering convenience and customer service to their guests, adapting, as they always have, as the definition of convenience and customer expectations evolve.