This article was originally published on ECRM’s blog on 2/8/2021

Convenience stores are once again “convenient” stores, as increasing numbers of consumers have sought them out for more of their pantry-filling needs while avoiding long lines and potential crowds at other retail channels. 

This was the overwhelming sentiment of more than a dozen buyers interviewed by Joe Tarnowski during ECRM’s recent Convenience Program. The buyers on the panel represented convenience store chains of varying sizes, from dozens to hundreds of stores, some with gasoline, some that are located in the parking lots of grocery stores, and with operations that are based here in the U.S. as well as in Canada. And while they each have been affected in unique ways by the pandemic, there were some common threads that ran through all of their experiences. 

Following are 10 key trends these buyers are seeing among shoppers at their stores:

1. Trips down, baskets up

As we’ve seen across other retail channels, consumers continue to consolidate their shopping trips to minimize their potential exposure to COVID. Still, they are purchasing more items during each trip, particularly pantry-filling items and take-home meals. 

2. Bigger is better when it comes to pack sizes

Instead of a can of beer, people want 12-packs, 18-packs, 24-packs. They want liters of soda. Jumbo bags of chips. Huge sticks of beef jerky. Many convenience store buyers are working with their DSD vendors to accommodate this shift in demand to “more” and “larger” options. Almost all of the buyers Tarnowski spoke with are seeing double-digit growth in sales of larger pack sizes, with one noting that sales of 12-pack sodas were up 94 percent. 

3. No more morning rush

With many people still working from home, the morning rush these convenience stores used to experience has all but disappeared, along with the associated products that are typically purchased on the way to the office, such as coffee and breakfast sandwiches. These sales have shifted to later parts of the day and meals for lunch and dinner.

4. Foodservice morphs to take-home meals

The pandemic resulted in self-service offerings such as fountain soda and coffee being shut down along with restrictions on other foodservice offerings, which has led many convenience stores to increase their focus on prepared meals to go. Some even are offering packaged meat and produce to become more of a one-stop-shop. 

5. Growth in online and delivery

Those c-stores offering drive-thru pickup and online delivery have seen orders explode, with one buyer routinely seeing online orders over $100, a trend that is expected to continue long after the pandemic is over. Others are working with delivery services like DoorDash, and even expanding their drive-thru pickup locations. 

6. Comfort foods reign supreme

One might think that there is an increased focus on wellness due to the pandemic, as we’ve seen a shift toward healthier foods in the grocery channel, but several buyers I spoke with say that in the convenience channel, comfort is king, and shoppers are buying snacks, alcoholic beverages, and candy like never before. Interestingly, even tobacco sales have spiked at some of these chains. “People may talk about wellness, but what they are buying is comfort,” says Tim Young at Newcomb Oil. 

7. Gum & mints down

Two categories they are not purchasing, however, are gum and mints. Several buyers noted that these items’ sales have significantly dropped since the pandemic, in some cases as much as 40 percent. Whether it’s due to mask-wearing consumers being less concerned about their breath, they aren’t sure, but they’ve certainly noticed the change at the register. 

8. PPE and essentials now a regular part of the assortment

Not surprisingly, face masks, hand sanitizers, and cleaners will be a regular part of every c-store’s assortment moving forward, as they have become a part of everyday life for consumers. Household essentials such as baby medicine and toilet paper and similar essential items are also commonplace, particularly within those stores that are open 24 hours. Preventative items such as vitamins are also seeing an increase in demand.

9. Propane sales heat up

Not only are more consumers cooking at home, they are also shifting their gatherings with friends to the back yard where the increased space and open air provides more safety. Because of this, there has been a corresponding increase in sales of propane tanks used for barbecue grills and outdoor heaters. 

10. CBD poised to grow in the channel

Most of the buyers spoken with, if they are not already selling CBD, are seriously considering it, as consumers are seeking these products to address stress caused by the pandemic.

While sales of many products boomed during the pandemic, one challenge this has caused is the inability to rely on transaction data to help buyers make their sourcing decisions. For example, traditional sports-related promotions stopped once games were canceled, yet sales of beer, snacks and beverages still spiked from pantry fillers.

Because of this, it’s difficult to determine whether a product’s strong sales were based on a particular item’s merits, or whether it was because consumers were just grabbing what they could in their rush to stockpile goods. During the pandemic, consumer behavior has destroyed any semblance of apples-to-apples comparisons, and many buyers are sticking with the “tried and true” offerings until the dust settles.

One thing is for sure, however: shoppers’ views have shifted from these retailers being a place to shop for conveniences, to a convenient place to shop.

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