Alexandria, VA — Convenience retailers say in-store sales grew in 2020, with twice as many reporting an in-store sales increase than a decrease (59 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively), according to a NACS survey of U.S. convenience store owners.
Convenience stores, which sell 80 percent of the fuel purchased in the country, experienced a decrease in fuel sales and commuter traffic throughout the pandemic. However, retailers adjusted in-store offers to focus more on more on take-home meals and grab-and-go meal solutions: 49 percent put more emphasis on pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals, 41 percent focused more on prepared foodservice meals and 24 percent focused more on ready-to-heat take-home meals.
The survey also found retailers added or extended their offerings around more in-demand products: 39 percent focused more on cleaning/toiletry items and 34 percent focused more on grocery items. In addition, with COVID-19 restrictions limiting on-premise consumption of alcohol at other establishments, c-stores focused more on take-home alcohol offers. Overall, 39 percent of stores put more emphasis on this category, with 58 percent adding new items.
While convenience stores added or focused on new offers, they also found some traditional items in short supply, the survey respondents noted. More than two in three (69 percent) say it was difficult to find qualified candidates for jobs, 69 percent say cleaning items/toiletries were in short supply, and 59 percent say the coin circulation challenges experienced during the summer affected stores. In addition, 48 percent say they experienced shortages of alcoholic beverages (beer wine, alcohol) and 42 percent saw shortages of packaged beverages (bottled water, soda, energy drinks, teas).
“We exist in a small community (Arivaca, Arizona), where the nearest gas and grocery is more than 35 miles away. During the pandemic we were able to stay open and (mostly) stocked, and our community was infinitely appreciative of that,” says Damon Goodmanson at II Sonz LLC, which operates the Arivaca Mercantile in town.
While 83 percent of items traditionally purchased at a convenience store are consumed within the hour, often in the car, retailers say they continue to build up take-home and meal offers in 2021. Fifty-eight percent say they will emphasize prepared foodservice meals, 51 percent will focus more on prepared ready-to-eat meals like salads and sandwiches, and 30 percent will focus more on ready-to-heat meals.
Outlook for 2021
Retailers say they are more pessimistic (41 percent) than optimistic (24 percent) about shopper foot traffic for Q1 2021, but note they are increasingly optimistic about sales in each ensuing quarter. By Q4, retailers say they are more optimistic (67 percent) than pessimistic (6 percent) about how business will be performing, likely due to an expectation that larger portion of Americans will have received a COVID-19 vaccination by end of year.
In addition to sales, retailers say they will continue or expand their community giving in 2021. Overall, 61 percent say they will have programs to support local schools, 48 percent will support local first responders, 32 percent will focus on wellness programs for the community, and 27 percent will support hunger relief programs.
Most of all, retailers expect that the feeling of community and the teamwork in stores to continue to resonate in 2021.
“With the shutdown of restaurants and entertainment, people still need to see familiar faces and be able to have some normalcy to their daily lives. Many of our customers continue to come in for that cup of coffee and to be greeted by our employees that they see every day on their way to work. We have received many words of thankfulness for our support of our communities,” says Randy Fuller at Bill L. Dover Company Inc., which operates 16 Jiffy Markets around Jasper, Texas.
“Our entire c-store staff did a magnificent job in 2020. I am sure that when they joined the company they did not envision wearing masks and shields eight hours a day and working behind plastic screens as an essential, front-line, service to the community during a raging pandemic. Their efforts in serving are shadowed by the health care industry, but are in the reality of human needs, no less important,” says Douglas Dean at South Pacific Petroleum Corporation, which operates 13 76/Circle K stores in Guam.
And, retailers also recognized the efforts of workers at other stores. In April and May, it was common to see retailers rewarding healthcare workers with special offers in recognition of their important work. Landhope Farms, a three-store chain based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, took this type of recognition one step further.
“We decided to get in the game as well and offer free coffee to all essential workers — including the people who work at Walmart, Target, local grocery stores and farmers in our area. I truly believe that in addition to the first responders and healthcare professionals, the ‘essential worker’ is the unsung hero of 2020. Our customers appreciated being noticed and recognized for being essential,” said Dennis McCartney, the company’s director of operations.