The Evolution of the Convenience Store
May 7, 2021
The convenience store as we know it is undergoing a significant evolution — and it’s starting regionally. East coasters have long been familiar with grabbing dinner from a C-store — a hoagie from Wawa or some of Royal Farm’s famous fried chicken. Regular meals from gas stations might be a bit of a foreign concept for West coasters (recently a horrified client asked “Who eats at a gas station?!”), but millions love it and the numbers are only growing.
Let me take you to a small town called Altoona, Pennsylvania — the home of Bob Sheetz, founder of Sheetz, Inc. I happen to know quite a bit about Altoona, having spent endless holidays in this old railroad town where both my parents were raised (you can still find a Frank at most community events).
Sheetz was born in 1952 when Bob purchased one of his dad’s five dairy stores. The store built slowly, only expanding into this third store by 1969. But in 1973, Sheetz added gasoline pumps and was the first to introduce self-serve gasoline to Central Pennsylvania — a move that led to an expansion explosion.
By 1983, Sheetz had expanded to 100 stores. In 1995, the reins were handed to Bob’s son, Stan, the company went through a wave of continued growth and innovation, introducing fans to touch screen ordering, Sheetz Bros. Coffee, and made-to-order subs and bakery products. The concept of getting quality food at a convenience store was on like Donkey Kong.
Fast forward to 2021 and we east coast kids do not hesitate for a second to swing by Sheetz for an MTO (made-to-order sandwiches) or Wawa for the best hoagie in town. Who can resist Royal Farms chicken tenders (I’m getting hungry), or just about anything on the very impressive menu at Rutter’s?
The reality is C-stores are more than gas stations. They are quick dinners, community gathering places, dog parks, rest stops, and more. Like any great brand in a competitive marketplace, they need to provide the potential customer with a feeling of safety, cleanliness, convenience, and coolness. Just take a look at 7-Eleven’s new stylish ‘Take It to Eleven’ $70 million campaign — a move aiding in the roll-out of the new 7-Eleven Evolution store, a testing ground for the chain’s new technology and operational enhancements.
So listen up old school gas stations, it’s time to evolve and focus on these five immediate challenges:
– Store Design: Increase your focus on the consumer journey, safety, and cleanliness with an eye toward a hospitality experience.
– Site Plan: Embrace the use of outdoor space and plan for multiple use cases including curbside pick-up, outdoor seating, space for the dog, or even a driver-through.
– Food Service: Elevate your food experience through better merchandising, brand partnerships, and enhanced offerings to drive brand loyalty.
– Technology: Technology is at the center of convenience, and it plays a critical role in streamlining the onsite experience with app ordering and curbside pick-up (as well as the impact that electric cars and other fuel alternatives are creating).
– Loyalty Program + Marketing: Incentivize repeat visits with improved ease of use, rewards, and, yes, marketing that tells your story, entertains, and brings your brand to top of mind.
And on your next visit to the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, plan to tour the culinary delights of Sheetz, Wawa, Royal Farms, and Rutters. Enjoy.