The New Convenience

C-stores are being forced to upgrade and drop the 'smokes and Cokes' image as competition moves into their territory
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Posted September 1, 2011
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The big gulp you’re hearing these days is not from a 7-Eleven fountain drink. It’s from the management of 7-Eleven itself – and Wawa, Thorntons, Circle K, Cumberland Farms and all the other major convenience store players around the country.

The reason? Walmart is now threatening the convenience store sector with its newest concept, Walmart Express, a 15,000-square-foot blueprint that’s about a tenth of the size of a supercenter and with a primary focus on groceries. The company has publicly said it’s “excited” about this, and that means it will move fast and expand robustly.

“We have been hard at work on this format,” Walmart U.S. president and ceo Bill Simon told a Bank of America conference earlier this year.

The challenge isn’t coming only from Walmart, though. Target has also announced a smaller footprint in mostly urban locations. Most national supermarket chains are experimenting with smaller formats, as well. And drugstore chains have added freezer cases and specialty food sections that resemble nothing more than a convenience store format, all but burying the pharmacy department that once was their franchise.

The Silver Lining

As with most challenges, though, there are silver opportunities lining the clouds. For C-store operators, it’s a chance to become Q-stores – “Q” as in “quality.”

“C-stores will learn what everyone else has learned,” says Barb Fabing, executive vp and creative director for Arc Worldwide, the shopper marketing arm of the Leo Burnett Group (Chicago). “You can’t compete with Walmart on price. C-store operators are going to have to leverage their locations, hours, efficiency and a value formula that includes the quality of their offerings.”

Restrooms need to be Priority One, says Joseph Bona, president of the retail division at CBX, a New York-based branding and consulting firm. “There need to be enough of them, they need to be operational and clean as a whistle. A dirty restroom, and the entire experience is ruined.”

Freshness is the second priority. “With the rising price of gas, and surprisingly slim margins on fuel, C-store operators are realizing they need something else to offer,” notes Bona, “And that ‘something else’ does not simply mean beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. There has to be the perception that inside is freshness, quality and variety as well as convenience – a reason to shop there with some frequency.”

Bona cites sandwich shops like Panera Bread as a good model – casual places that also promise an attention to detail. “That’s something C-stores have not necessarily been known for,” he adds.

Wawa, the Pennsylvania-based chain throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, now offers full, hot breakfasts and specialty fresh-food items such as clam chowder, toasted wraps and flatbread sandwiches.

Sheetz, another Pennsylvania-based chain, offers things like Angus beef burgers and full-service espresso and smoothie bars staffed by trained baristas.

Even 7-Eleven, the prototypical convenience store, is stepping up its game with multiple coffee choices, fresh-food offerings, custom-made sandwiches and places to sit and eat.

Quality Cues

Partnering with name brands is another way for C-stores to elevate their image. So Thorntons (Louisville, Ky.) has large exterior signage announcing it carries Dunkin Donuts products, including its highly regarded fresh-brewed coffee. And the donuts themselves are not in packages, they’re on shelves. “Packaged suggests commodity,” says Arc’s Fabing. “Out of the package and onto shelves suggests freshness – and quality.”

As is often the case, design is being used to tell this new story, starting with the outside. “Clever architecture announces that something new is going on inside,” Bona says. In Canada, CBX helped develop a new concept for Neighbours, the retail partner of Petro-Canada. The exterior cladding is local, natural river rock. A vertical vestibule is a place to decompress from the winter cold.

“It says, ‘We’re a food store,’ ” Bona notes. “ ‘Kick that slush off your boots before you come inside.’ ”
Even the parking lot has been reconsidered to make it inviting. “If you want people to come inside, you have to make parking plentiful and convenient,” says Bona. “A few strips hugging the building is not enough anymore. Plenty of parking says you’re serious about convenience.”

Large windows, upgraded lighting, low shelving, clear sightlines, eye-catching graphics, better organization of merchandise sections and a colorful use of materials add visual interest. Graphically defined environments create convenience for people on the move and large visuals allow customers to quickly scan and move towards their purchase need.

BreadBox Food Stores, a regional chain in Knoxville, Tenn., has filled its newer units with a dynamic visual package from SuperGraphics (Seattle) that takes advantage of open sightlines to offer clear, unambiguous messaging. BreadBox also installed floor-to-ceiling glass for a brighter, safer feel aimed especially at female customers. “The glass might not be the cheapest way, but it is the best way,” says BreadBox president Chuck Baine.

“Large windows also declare that it’s safe, especially at night,” says Arc’s Fabing. “There should be no dark corners or aisleways.”

“Not dark” doesn’t necessarily mean “uniformly bright.” “C-store lighting used to be the cheapest possible fluorescent alternative,” says Bona. “This industry is not used to thinking about sophisticated uses of lighting.”

Where the Truckers Stop

It’s not only streetside and roadside C-stores that are refining their images. So are so-called highway “truck stops,” which usually convey crowded gas pump bays and functional, industrial interiors with little thought given to design.

Pilot and Flying J Travel Plazas at more than 500 interstate exits around the country have upgraded their units to better accommodate the needs of both the professional driver and the family gas customer, according to Tim Purcell, director of merchandising for Pilot Travel Centers (Knoxville, Tenn.).

Like the more traditional C-stores, these truck stops are adding brighter lighting, wider aisles and large, eye-catching graphics. They’re also upping their product offering, with premium origin-blend coffees and modern Bunn brewing equipment at clean, efficient stations. Pilot is also emphasizing partnerships with major QSR brands such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s. It is the largest Subway franchisee in the U.S., and has sit-down dining run by Denny’s.

“We know people will be drawn by our gas prices, which they can see on our billboards from the highway,” says Purcell. “But we want them to come inside and shop or eat, too.”
And when they’re inside, says CBX’s Bona, “make it a journey. You’ve expressed the promise that there will be a rich experience full of tempting visuals and even smells. Now fulfill that promise.”

Project Suppliers

Retailer: BreadBox Food Stores, Knoxville, Tenn.
Design: Global Development and Lillybug Network, Knoxville, Tenn.
Environment branding and signage: SuperGraphics, Seattle

Retailer: Pilot Flying J / Pilot Travel Centers, Knoxville, Tenn.
Design: SuperGraphics and Pilot collaboration
Environment branding and signage: SuperGraphics