C-store food and beverage purchases are typically unplanned and made on the spot to satisfy a specific need or craving. Shoppers are often looking for a convenient and affordable options to fulfill certain need states during varied usage occasions, most notably during the midday lull between lunch and dinner, Risch said.
Interestingly, Risch noted, the occasion is “not just a quick grab-an- go packaged good but it [is] also for…hot and cold prepared foods.”
Salty snacks, candy, baked foods, hot and cold meals are the most common categories c-store shoppers seek. Fruits and vegetables lab because of consumers’ potential perception of c-store shopping as an indulgent endeavor, Risch explained.
Risch said the most common items purchased together, for example, a soda and chips or a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, depending on various factors like time of day and top sellers.
“A salty snack and a beverage are…often purchased together. It’s a bundling opportunity,” she added.
Breaking the junk food perception
One of the key differentiators between c-stores and other snack channels is “you don’t see as many healthy snacks pop to the top.”
From previous snack studies, Ricsh emphasized that fresh fruit ranks as the second most common snack eaten throughout the day.
For fruit and vegetable producers, the impulse-driven nature of a c-store may be beneficial, particularly if single-serving, convenient foods, like bananas and apples, are placed near the checkout.
Consumers’ perception of c-stores also offers insight to the lack of healthier, fresh food options because “they’ve just been known as the junk food center,” Risch said.
“You go there and it’s junk food, but they’re the same consumer who is torn having to choose between healthy and junk,” she added.
Offering healthier options can be a win for c-stores, particularly as snack occasions are more nuanced throughout the day. Risch noted that snack bars and protein bars are growing in popularity within the channel, honing in on healthy convenience.
“If they’re meeting the needs of so many of these snack occasions, they need to have that balanced offering of good for you and bad for you,” Risch said.
C-stores like Wally’s offer fresh-made entrees that focus on American comfort foods and Sheetz’s Made-to-Order sandwiches bridge the gap between healthy and convenient; while Allsup’s “World Famous” burrito expanded into grocery channels due to rising popularity among consumers.
However, for smaller c-stores, the challenge is “trying to fit in these additional healthy snacks without eroding their other sales.”
Catering to consumer demand for value and quality
Within an inflated economy, consumers continue to look for value and promotions, yet c-stores are faced with the perception of being convenient, while still more expensive than other channels.
“C-stores are not perceived as having the lowest price or having enough sales, deals or promotions. There’s a perception there that they can get lower prices elsewhere,” Risch elaborated.
Yet, c-stores have an opportunity to leverage the convenience factor by offering more prepared foods, bundling promotions and clear signage denoting quality, all catering to on-the-go consumers looking for value and freshness.
“The more they can actually stand out and not lose purchases to those consumers who are looking for deals, there’s a big upside opportunity,” Risch added.
Ready-made sandwiches, particularly freshly made breakfast sandwiches that are promoted at gas pumps have grown in popularity, often compete with other convenient sources like fast food restaurants and coffee shops. This channel blurring can be beneficial to c-stores, Risch explained.
“That snack occasion is so fast and convenient at c-stores, it can be competing with quick service restaurants more than the grocery store down the street. It’s an interesting thought when it comes to what you can bundle and offer as a grab-and-go,” she elaborated.
According to Acosta Group's research, 63% of consumers download a c-store app for loyalty points towards fuel and products—“so there’s this big opportunity to do…meaningful promotions," she said.
For example, Risch explained, promotions could look like a gamified experience, “making saving fun because it fits the image of the stores that are already perceived as quick and fast, and fun…If you were to go somewhere for a fun snack, where would you go? It makes sense that c-stores have that.”
Additionally, c-stores have the benefit of strong product stock, contributing to consumers’ perception of stock consistency when shopping.
“They’re very good at keeping everything in stock because the perception of consumers in our study is that the stores are extremely well stocked and organized and they often go to see stores because they know they will be available...You’re never going to walk into c-stores and not find your M&Ms,” she said.
While c-stores offer familiar staples, the challenge is balancing consumers’ demand for newer items with their staples, while implementing engaging promotions either in-store or at the gas pump.