How C-Stores Are Stealing Customers from Grocery Stores

How C-Stores Are Stealing Customers from Grocery Stores

To capture more visits from a changing and brand-sensitive consumer, leading C-stores are starting to think more like mini-groceries. The more the line is blurred, the more the cash register rings.

Here are some key tips to keep front-of-mind as this niche gets more sophisticated and competitive:

Take a hard look at product mix: If you want to convince a customer to shop like they are in a grocery store, you’ve got to have what they need. Thoughtfully chosen selections of fresh produce are starting to make their way into new-concept C-stores. To go along with this, square footage is starting to expand. Those new concepts need room to grow. But even a traditional 5,000-square foot convenience store can capitalize on the trend with key displays of fresh fruit, prepared fruit or other fresh, ready-to-go foods.


Presentation matters: Presentation and quality need to be more than an afterthought here. Less-than-fresh produce isn’t going to change perception or buying habits. Nor will your customer think of you differently if you’re not maximizing “dead space” or leading with pretzels and chips. You want to make sure that fresher food offerings grab the eye right away. This is going to impact your store layout and design choices. You have to think about what you can operationally support, as well. Store staff, management, and vendors must be able to execute the dream, or else fresher concepts will only be good on paper.


Can you expand your square footage or service model? This is the “big win,” giving you more options for profitably blurring the line between you and the grocery. Leaders are building out stores as big as 11,000 square feet. Outside? Cheap fuel. Inside? Full selections of dairy products, full-service hot food counters or coffee with sit-down areas, growler stations for take-out beer, 12 feet of refrigerated multi-deck produce — even in-house cut meat! This is the expression of the true hybrid model that turns the old C-store into an alluring new shopping destination.


Signature brand experiences: Visitors to RaceTrac can expect 112 fountain drink options — a great way to craft a signature experience even though most of their stores are only about 5,000 square feet. Jacksons Food Stores got really smart and designed special displays for curated, affordable Pacific Roads wine selections for people on the go. Soft-serve ice cream and “beer cave” concepts have also been popping up. These stores have an incremental experiential edge that sets them apart and draws more visits. What’s yours?

Does your store still look and feel like a gas station? No matter what your square footage, every store benefits from a consistent, appealing brand. There’s a big shift here: In the old model, big, cartoonish graphics were the norm. That’s changing as C-stores go to a more sophisticated look. This touches on operations, too; no thoughtfully executed store brand will fare well if you have the hallmarks of the old “gas station” model. You can probably picture what I mean: dirty, old fixtures; wads of gum on the sidewalk and water-stained acoustic tile in the bathroom. The customers who will grow your business expect more.


There are many creative ways to make the shift — if not to a grocery hybrid, then to a more appealing C-store that can win the occasional visit from someone who would have otherwise ended up at the grocery store.


Concepts and execution vary a lot from market to market and chain to chain. So do the challenges. Give us a shout if you want to talk about some of yours.

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