Indeed, for most of the 20th century, convenience was a key point of differentiation for retailers and suppliers alike, especially when it came to food. In fact, during the rise of TV and microwave dinners, convenience was more important to consumers than the actual taste of the food.
That is far from the case with today’s “foodie” culture. The emphasis on quality and freshness often directly butts up against the traditional idea of convenience. Yet with operators such as Panera and Whole Foods proving that food can be both fresh and convenient, c-stores are finding themselves in a bind.
“Convenience is at a critical time; convenience being a point of contention is a rapidly diminishing point,” Barry said.
Yes, the stereotypical c-store model of a convenient place to pick up gas, beer and jerky will still work for a certain set of consumers—whom Barry referred to as the “Bubbas” of the world—but these shoppers account for only about 25% of the market.
“Do you alienate Bubba if you offer fresh, quality options to the other 75% of consumers?” Barry said. “Probably not.”
Using her research as an anthropologist, Barry looked at the typical daily meals of some consumer groups less likely than Bubba to shop the c-store channel: the “Yoga Chick” and “Susie Normal.” While Yoga Chick may always eschew the c-store channel in lieu of high-end coffee shops and trendy cafes, Barry sees lots of opportunity with the Susie Normals of the world. While these female shoppers want the quick and convenient experience a c-store offers, they often head to competitors in the drug-store channel instead.
“Drug is a big competitor for the average female consumer,” said Barry. “She can buy something to eat and also pick up lip balm and a snack for later. She can do all her indulgence shopping in one spot.”
And, as important as it is to draw Susie Normal away from drug and into convenience, Barry believes it’s even more crucial for c-store retailers to retain a consumer base they already have—but may not always cater to.
“The ultimate opportunity is millennials,” Barry said. “You haven’t lost them … yet. But c-stores are very, very close to becoming irrelevant for this generation.”
Barry sees a simple way for c-stores to appeal to females, millennials and beyond, and it all goes back to that trend of fresh, quality food. While the terms “local” and “organic” are often associated with high-end shoppers or health nuts, this is no longer the case.
“Today, high-quality food is not just limited to affluent suburbanites and urban hipsters,” said Barry. “Fresh and quality—it doesn’t automatically mean healthy. There are lots of options within quality indulgences.”
Which isn’t to say retailers must completely overhaul their foodservice programs. Rather than investing in an entirely new program to attract millennials and females, retailers can merely dip their toes in the water, Barry suggested.
“Simply adding fresher, trendier options will go a long way,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be across the board; it’s not all or nothing.”