Convenience Retailers Say Travel, In-Store Visits Will Be Near ‘Normal’ Levels By Summer

Alexandria, VA — Convenience retailers anticipate leisure travel and routine customer trips will return to pre-pandemic levels this summer, according to a NACS survey of U.S. convenience store owners.

Convenience stores, which sell 80 percent of the fuel purchased in the U.S., experienced a 13 percent decrease in fuel sales and less customer traffic throughout the pandemic. However, more than half of retailers (52 percent) say summer travel and commuting patterns will be close to pre-pandemic levels by the summer. However, this is not shared optimism with 28 percent not expecting to see traditional travel patterns emerge until 2022.

Retailers anticipate growth in categories including dispensed cold beverages and coffee (43 percent), as well as immediate consumption prepared foods (62 percent). These categories experienced, and continue to experience in some areas, various state and local restrictions.

The pandemic-related decrease in commuting and vehicle miles driven during the past year led to shifts in morning traffic and sales at convenience stores, the association notes, with coffee and breakfast food sales off by 10 to 15 percent. Convenience retailers are reestablishing their locations as morning daypart destinations with 40 percent indicating they are offering discounts for repeat purchases, and 27 percent promoting offers that incentivize shoppers to return for discounts.

“Retailers are optimistic that traditional driving routines are returning — from the morning commute to the family summer road trip — and that’s great news not just for our industry but for the overall economy,” says NACS Vice-Chairman of Research and Technology Andy Jones, who operates Sprint Food Stores, based in Augusta, GA.

Before the pandemic, most items sold at convenience stores (83 percent) were considered immediate consumption, including snacks, beverages and confections, and consumed within an hour of purchase. But as more consumers have relied on convenience stores for take-home items, retailers also expect those sales to increase: 36 percent are focusing on multi-serve meals and prepared foods for future consumption, and 13 percent are expecting more stock-up grocery and pantry item sales.

Convenience retailers also say they will continue safety protocols, with 71 percent encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. The most common incentives offered are paid time off to get a vaccine (34 percent), coordinating a vaccine location specific to their employees (26 percent) or offering monetary incentives (10 percent).

When asked which retail innovations they saw in 2020 that they will apply to their stores, most convenience retailers said contactless payments and last-mile offers like home delivery and curbside pickup will grow. Tying together new offers that emerged during the pandemic, 20 percent note that they will expand services like drive-thrus, delivery and curbside pickup.

“Online ordering attached to a quick local delivery is not a new idea, but it is one that demonstrated significant use this past year. This has shown consumers that it is possible, and it will drive more usage and expectations, making it a standard option for retailers to provide,” says Charlie McIlvaine, CEO of Coen Markets Inc., based in Canonsburg, PA.

Other retailers agreed that focusing on basic operations like inventory control and customer service will pay off as the pandemic recedes. “We saw the value of customer service — it’s essential for us to be friendly and act locally to continue earning our community’s support,” says Malik Yousif, president of MYS Energy, based in Manassas, VA.