Swimming Upstream

Government gridlock, consumer frugality temper retailers’ 2014 expectations in latest Outlook Survey.

By  Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator

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The definition of frustration: doing all you can to grow your business but seeing your efforts blunted by forces seemingly out of your control.

Based on the results of CSP’s 2013 Outlook Survey of c-store business optimism and expectations for the coming year, many operators seem to be swimming upstream in an atmosphere of heavy regulation and low consumer enthusiasm. More than 40% described business conditions as “poor” or “flat,” with the greatest percentage rating it as “good.”

Barb Mathias, co-owner of Outback Run Thru, a drive-thru convenience/liquor store near Bremen, Ohio, is one of those retailers who calls current conditions “good,” although she attributes part of her business’ growth to the fact that it opened only a few years ago, and that she is operating it more consistently than the previous owner, who fell ill.

“I’d definitely contribute a 15% [increase in sales] to just that fact,” says Mathias. “Also, we support a lot of community activities, and the old owners didn’t do that so much.”

That said, her expectations for 2014 are low. 

“I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the economy at all,” she says, citing political gridlock and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “This health-care thing, people are paranoid—at least out here. … So many people are finding they are going to be spending more than planned. Any extra money will be going toward that.

“We’re building a good reputation, have a good business, we’re clean, people like coming here, we’re friendly—we make it our top priority. We treat people how we want to be treated,” she concludes. “But people only have so much money. And you’re expendable out of their budget.”

The second and third quarters of 2013 showed steady improvement, according to a retailer from a large chain who considers business conditions “flat” overall.

“The year started out poorly and we have never fully recovered,” he says via e-mail, requesting anonymity. “The January 2013 fiscal uncertainty affected our customers, mainly through the 2% reduction in their take-home pay. They had to make choices. They learned to make do with less.” 

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