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CONVENIENCE RETAILING HAS EXPANDED BEYOND THE PUMP

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Today’s consumers increasingly choose gas stations based on what’s inside the store, according to a recent Bloomberg article — with millennials valuing the quality of food as much as the price at the pump.

In the aptly-titled “Some Gas With That Sandwich? Convenience Dominates Fuel Market,” authors Sarah Ponczek and Laura Blewitt describe the shift in sales from the pumps to the stores.

Yesterday’s motorists often looked for the Exxon tiger or the Texaco star, but major oil companies exited fuel retailing and refocused their attention on higher-margin activities — like locating and processing oil. Convenience retailers swooped in to entice customers with food and other necessities alongside their fuel.

In recent years, this trend towards in-store sales has accelerated with consumers viewing convenience stores as destinations for high-quality coffee, meals, and snacks, creating serious competition for quick-service restaurants, fast-casual chains, and coffee shops. In a June 2017 survey, 73% of GasBuddy users reported that they visit convenience stores even when they aren’t fueling up. And as I noted in a recent NACS Daily column, the large investments that have made in ambiance, amenities, and quality suggest that convenience stores may be the new coffee shops.

“You can’t just have good gas prices,” Billy Milam, president of RaceTrac Petroleum, told Bloomberg. “Back 20 years, we’d rarely talk about what we’d sell in stores, but it’s really taken root over the past 10 to 12 years and we had to reshape our business to make that possible.”

RaceTrac’s newest stores often feature amenities like indoor seating and WiFi; and during recent visits, I’ve encountered self-serve frozen yogurt, whole fruit, and high-quality snacks like EPIC Bars. RaceTrac is also a destination for fans of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs.

RaceTrac’s “Swirl World” self-serve frozen yogurt bars; Photo: Frank Beard

Simply put: these are not your grandfather’s gas stations—as GasBuddy CEO Walt Doyle explained in his keynote presentation at the 2017 Street Fight Summit.

This shift is obvious on social media. Rather than promoting what happens at the pumps, brands like Sheetz, QuikTrip, Wawa, and GasBuddy Business Pages partner Kwik Trip promote what’s going on inside. A late-night #SheetzRun isn’t about refueling your car — it’s about refueling your stomach.

This has implications for advertising and marketing. Convenience stores are often in a position to lure traffic away from coffee shops and quick-service restaurants—especially in the morning and during the peak hours of 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. And with half of Americans visiting a convenience store daily, location-based mobile advertising on apps like GasBuddy provides a way for companies to get their message in front of the right consumers at the right time.

Today’s consumers also use mobile apps to provide feedback on the full range of their retail experiences. GasBuddy users don’t just submit fuel prices; they rate and review stores on everything from the quality of the restrooms to the coffee and customer service. GasBuddy Business Pages partners can also create custom ratings to gather additional feedback on foodservice options and new amenities.

This crowdsourced feedback influences consumer behaviors and brand perceptions. According to a recent survey, 75% of GasBuddies find ratings and reviews helpful when choosing a station, and 69% wouldn’t visit a store with less than 3 out of 5 stars. GasBuddy Business Pages offers reputation management solutions that allow brands to effectively engage and leverage this feedback.

It’s a different world, but leading convenience store brands are responding.

QuikTrip, for example—which handles 2.5 percent of all U.S. gasoline sales—is looking for in-store transactions to produce a quarter of its revenue.

“We wouldn’t be investing our money on in-store sales if we didn’t think that was the future,” spokesman Michael Thornbrugh told Bloomberg.

Analyst, Convenience Store and Retail Trends

Frank Beard is a passionate advocate for convenience stores who brings a wide range of experience to the GasBuddy team. His "30 Days of Gas Station Food" experiment has raised awareness of the fact that most — if not all — convenience stores have healthful options available. He's spoken at events like the 2016 NACS Show and the Partnership for a Healthier America's 2017 Summit, and he's a contributor to NACS Magazine and NACS Daily. Having visited more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states, Frank helps communicate the fact that convenience stores truly are the perfect pit stop.