Over the past 20 years, convenience stores have become much more than a place to pick up drinks, snacks or a magazine.
“But what does the next 20 years look like,” asked Jeff Lenard, VP of strategic industry initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores.
The size of the industry itself attests to its influence on consumer behavior, something grocers should take note of, according to Lenard.
“There are 150,000 convenience stores in the country,” he said. “That is equivalent to taking every grocery store, plus every dollar store, plus every drug store. That gets you to about 120,000 [stores]. Then you add every Starbucks and every McDonald’s. That is the size of our industry. That is why there is so much excitement on the show floor.”
Lenard was referring to the NACS Show 2023, which ran Oct. 3-6 at the World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
The show offered 990 minutes of exhibit time and nearly 4,300 minutes of educational and general sessions across four days, during which expo-goers learned about new products, ideas and technology that are pushing the c-store industry forward.
“The NACS Show is to show people what’s next. The exhibitors do that. The speakers do that. And the connection that people make here do that,” Lenard said.
This year’s show began with a general session Oct. 3 featuring writer Kevin Paul Scott and a kickoff party on the field of nearby Mercedes-Benz Stadium, something that set this year’s show apart from previous years.
“I think a lot of people, when they think about the experience this week, will say the Mercedes-Benz Stadium opening kickoff – a literal kickoff party,” Lenard said. “To be able to walk on the 50-yard line where the Super Bowl is played, the SEC Championship, Taylor Swift [concerts] – it’s an unbelievable experience.”
The NACS Show rotates between Atlanta, Chicago and Las Vegas. Next year’s show is set for Oct. 7-10 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. However, Atlanta as a host site is advantageous for NACS. Many retailers that attended are based in the Southeast, Lenard said.
“Atlanta is much more a business-focused meeting,” he said. “Whether that’s partially because people are driving here and they’re seeing people they’ve known, but they’re down to business. We’re seeing packed education sessions.”
The NACS Show boasted an average of 250-300 attendees per session.
Much like the grocery industry, c-stores are becoming more than just a place for consumers to fill up vehicles with gas. They are putting much more emphasis on new items, technological integration and fresh foodservice.
Citing the 1983 movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” Lenard compared how much food at c-stores has evolved.
“There was a line in there where Clark Griswold says he’s so hungry he could eat a sandwich from a gas station. Today, that joke doesn’t resonate,” he said. “In fact, when they remade the movie, that line wasn’t in it. Forty years later, foodservice is not just our future, it’s our current.
“Retailers see more than 25 percent of sales attributed to foodservice. And 36 percent of profit is attributed to foodservice. More than one out of every $3 is from foodservice. Convenience stores are really restaurants that happen to sell gas.”
Holts Summit, Missouri-based PFSbrands can attest to that. The company’s booth was popular among attendees, giving out free slices of its Hangar 54 pizza.
CEO Shawn Burcham said the product has been “phenomenal” since its introduction last year. It has expanded to nearly 500 grocery and c-stores. Alongside its pizza, the company also offers notable brands such as Champs Chicken, bluTACO, Wingman Pizza and an extensive private label program.
Burcham explained the variety of products and their varying levels of success can be attributed to the importance of foodservice in modern retail.
“I think in both areas – especially [the] supermarket world – that’s probably 35 percent of our business,” he said. “Obviously, the perimeter departments have become extremely important. And we feel glad to play a role in one of those.
“Foodservice inside supermarkets and convenience stores will just continue to get better. … When you look at all the statistics and everything, It’s actually taking a big bite out of the QSR in the fast-casuals. A lot of people are beginning to have more faith in what they can buy inside a convenience store or supermarket.”
Ben Boyd, VP of sales and convenience for Tyson Foods, shared a similar experience at the NACS Show. The brand was giving away samples of its newest offerings, including the Hillshire Farms Cupping Pepperoni and sausage link, as well as a Tyson Chicken Pub Burger To Go.
“I always look at food as a differentiator,” Boyd said. “Everybody’s going to have your traditional brands products within the center store. Food is something that really helps differentiate and help the convenience store chain compete and become a foodservice destination.”
Comparing the grocery industry with convenience, Lenard views technology is essential in terms of customer satisfaction.
“Without technology, it’s impossible to be convenient,” he said. “You can’t figure out what somebody wants, what adjacencies you need, how to manage your price book, how to merchandise. None of that is possible without technology.
“You have to sell stuff how people want it, when they want, where they want it. That’s what technology does.”
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