Convenience Store Battle Brewing, Part 2
Industry blogger Steven Johnson refers to them as ‘grocerants.’ Pennsylvania-based retailer Sheetz calls its stores ‘convenience restaurants.’ Whatever you call them, convenience stores with in-store fresh food are part of a booming industry and a growing threat to traditional foodservice operators.
As I’ve noted in earlier articles, there are several strong reasons for the c-store industry to look for alternate revenue sources. Higher gas prices and pay-at-the-pump technology have combined to keep gas customers from coming into the store after a fill-up. Lower foot traffic means fewer impulse purchases. Meanwhile, decreasing profit margins on motor fuels are putting the squeeze on operators and forcing them to innovate. In addition, fewer people are smoking so there are fewer customers coming into the c-stores to feed their addiction. Tobacco still accounts for more than 40% of in-store sales but the profit margin on those products is just over 20%, according to the most recent NACS State of the Industry survey results released earlier this year by NACS The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing.
In-store foodservice remains the bright promise for the industry, accounting for just 16% of in-store sales but 27% of gross profit dollars. As Bloomberg Businessweek recently noted, three factors are driving the competition for foodservice dollars: c-stores are going after the same demographic population as quick-serve restaurants, pizza sales at c-stores increased nearly 10% last year, and fresh food brings in new customers, notably women and older shoppers.
In mid-September, fellow editors Brian List and Matt Werhner joined me on a convenience-store tour. In the east Tampa area near where we work and where I live, three new c-store/gas stations have opened within a two-mile radius, an area that had previously been home to one older such location. You can read Brian’s overview of our tour here: http://newsroom.chainstoreguide.com/2013/10/theres-a-convenience-store-battle-brewing-in-the-tampa-market/
First on our list was RaceTrac, the original gas stop for the area. The store sits on a busy corner on the going-home side of the road and has been there for more than a decade. Despite some recent remodeling, the store looks its age and its food offerings are roller-grill round things (sausages, hot dogs, taquitos), pre-made sandwiches, and some fresh fruit and pastries. A large coffee bar is a relatively new addition, and the store has added a new soft-drink dispenser system. There was a steady stream of people in and out of the store, paying for gas and stocking up on snacks and beverages.
Our next stop was a brand-new (as in open just a few weeks) Victory Lane store that sells BP gasoline. Unlike RaceTrac, the store was empty except for the clerk, despite its location on a major north-south U.S. route. The only food was packaged snacks and two slow cookers filed with boiled peanuts (it’s a Southern thing). There was a small coffee bar and a simple beverage dispenser. However, there was also a big walk-in beer cooler that offered a large assortment of specialty beers alongside the usual national brands. I also noted a decent selection of wine, some of which was more upscale than I would have anticipated.
Next up was Thornton’s, also new to the area. When it opened a few months ago, I noticed that RaceTrac gas prices immediately went down, as did those in stations within the surrounding neighborhoods. The store is also situated on the going-home side of the road, but the gas pumps stayed busy despite our midday visit time. Similar to RaceTrac, the food choices at Thornton’s were pretty much limited to roller-grill items and pre-packaged sandwiches brought in from a commissary. However, the variety of sandwiches and round things was somewhat more upscale than what we had seen at RaceTrac. A nice touch was the fresh condiment station that allows customers to add sauerkraut, jalapeno slices, pico sauce, chopped onions, and other tasty toppings to their sandwiches. Thornton’s claim to customer loyalty rests to some extent on its beverage program. The company notes that it sells over 7 million cups of Fabulous Fountain every year, and any size soft drink is $.89. Through its FREEquency Rewards program, customers get every 7th drink free. There was also an extensive coffee/cappuccino bar with many flavored options available. Hot drinks are also $.89 each.
Our last stop was Wawa, a new-to-Florida retailer that is making a big push into the Tampa market. We timed our stop to be there for lunch, and we were all happy that we did. The store has the usual racks of snacks, candy, and other retail products as well as coolers and dispensers for cold drinks. I noticed that the store carries national brands of chips but it also has Herr’s brand as its house brand. Herr’s is based in Nottingham, PA, just 50 miles from the Wawa HQ office in Media, PA.
Notably different is that nearly half of the interior space is devoted to the foodservice prep area. Multiple touchscreen kiosks are available (along with a knowledgeable clerk to help us) for custom-ordering hot and cold foods. Unlike the other stores we visited, Wawa has menus that feature sandwiches, soups, salads, and sides. Breakfast hoagies are available both on-the-go and Built-To-Order (a Wawa trademark description). During the other dayparts, 12 varieties of hot sandwiches and 15 different cold sandwiches are all Built-To-Order, and the ordering kiosk allows the consumer to decide what toppings (lettuce, onions, tomatoes, peppers, a little mayonnaise, a lot of mayonnaise, etc.) and suggests add-ons (would you like bacon on that sandwich? do you want extra cheese?). There are nine varieties of soup available, including Italian Wedding Soup, New England Clam Chowder, and Lobster Bisque, as well as 12 Hot-To-Go bowl varieties filled with mashed potatoes or mac & cheese topped with chili, BBQ pork, meatballs, etc. Multiple salads and wraps complete the menu. Smoothies, chai tea, lattes, cappuccinos, and freshly brewed coffee are all available to help wash down your feast.
Chain Store Guide’s Online Plus Database of Chain Restaurant Operators includes more than 670 convenience store operators that offer in-store foodservice. These companies generate food and beverage sales in excess of $26 billion. If your company is providing products or services to the foodservice industry, are you including c-stores in your prospecting efforts? Talk to your sales representative to schedule a free demo of our online database and see how Chain Store Guide can help move your business in a new direction. Call 800-778-9794.