Kelly Hensel

There’s still room for improvement and growth in the c-store industry. With the number one customer being younger males, it is obvious that female shoppers are under-tapped consumer demographics. According to Packaged Facts, some 15.5 million men, more than a quarter of all male c-store patrons, visit convenience stores at least 10 times per month. This dwarfs the 8.8 million women who do so; that total represents only 15% of all female shoppers. There are a couple of barriers for women when it comes to c-store shopping—cleanliness and quality.

“The cleaner the store is, the more well stocked, the more fresh the product, the more attracted people are to overcome a lot of historical mentality regarding c-stores,” said Catherine Porter, Senior Customer Marketing Manager, Convenience Stores, for Sara Lee Foodservice. According to a 2011 Mintel report titled Convenience Store Foodservice—U.S., women are open to ordering more food options at c-stores, though they would prefer that c-stores partner with a recognizable restaurant brand, such as Subway or Pizza Hut (56%), and indicate that it is the freshly made food options that are going to have the most appeal, winning out over premade food offerings (52%). C-stores are certainly making strides in both quality and freshness, but they must make that known to the potential female shopper, who may not even enter the store. Advertising at the pump and on social network sites such as Facebook may be viable ways to reach this core consumer group.

Another potential hurdle for females is the unhealthy products that consumers associate with c-stores. Mintel found that female c-store shoppers over-index for interest in healthier food and organic and natural offerings. Operators must recognize that women are looking for healthier food than what has historically been offered, and that the future lies in an upgraded menu of prepared foods and edible groceries, according to another 2011 Mintel report, Attitudes Towards Convenience Store Shopping—U.S.

The lack of healthy options at c-stores might also be preventing another key demographic from purchasing—those age 55+. Only 40% of adults in this age group say they have ever purchased a food item or beverage at a c-store, Mintel reports.

Changes in consumer behavior and the growth of the private label sector have created a market in which c-stores could be successful launching their own private label programs. There are some well known c-store private label brands out there already. 7-Eleven has the 7 Select brand that includes everything from peanut butter-filled pretzels, the Big Bite hot dog-flavored potato chips, beef jerky, and a cranberry nut antioxidant snack pack. And, of course, it is hard to meet anyone who hasn’t heard of the Slurpee, 7-Eleven’s frozen slushie drink.

As the c-store with the most locations in the United States, 7-Eleven is able to compete on a level that many smaller or mid-size operations can’t. However, the creation of credible store brands like those of the successful Sheetz chain can enhance the competitiveness of mid-size versus larger c-store companies. As Gary Arthur, Valero Energy’s Senior Vice President, said at the NACS 2011 show, “We’ve seen tremendous growth in private label. It gives us a differentiated offering that consumers can find only in our stores. It helps us manage our cost of goods, and it helps our margins.”

Find out more on the convenience store industry by reading the Jan. 2012 feature story, "C-stores Raise the Bar on Convenience Foods."