Experience matters in bricks and mortar convenience, says Joe Bona

The US convenience retail landscape is defined by growth headwinds, channel blurring and increasing competition, according to Joe Bona of Bona Design Lab. It’s mandating a fresh approach in bricks and mortar stores - one that is focused on experience.

“Convenience used to be defined by our industry but everyone is fighting for this space from supermarkets, who are adding online delivery or smaller formats; to big box retailers who are shrinking their footprint; through to pharmacies who are introducing broader offers in their stores,” Bona says.

Indeed, he suggests the trend is deeper than channel blurring. “There’s so much competitiveness around convenience that in order to be relevant you need to build around the experience,” he maintains.

It’s a global phenomena too, he adds. The trend to digital and data-driven commerce has changed how people shop and disrupted their shopper missions. Today, when every retailer sells the same products and services, bricks and mortar stores need to find new ways to differentiate and provide relevancy.

On the plus side for convenience stores, they have continued to develop their foodservice credentials sufficiently that the online challenge is not an immediate threat for on-the-go consumption at least. “Online is going to change many things but, if you are hungry right now, it’s not going to satisfy the immediacy of when you decide you’re hungry, It will help in placing the order ahead of time so you can just run in and pick it up but not so relevant for delivery in 30 minutes or an hour.” Bona says. Convenience is insulated in that respect, he says, but retailers still need to do a good job by embracing technology and making their service better and more efficient.

Bona advises c-stores to be acutely aware of the Millennial generation in their marketing efforts - Millennials represent 27% of the population and make up 40% of the c-store customer base.

However, Millennials have a very different mindset, he cautions. “They do embrace convenience but their expectations are different,” he says.

Seventy per cent of Millennials would rather spend money on experience than things, Bona reports; and they reject anything that feels like corporate marketing.

The good news is that convenience stores accounted for 11.1% of Millennial food and beverage stops in 2014, compared to 7.7% in 2006. By comparison, fast-casual accounted for 6.1% in 2014 vs. 3.1% in 2006, according NPD's annual "Eating Patterns in America" study.

As well as craving heightened experiences and better offers, Millennials are also more concerned about health and wellness, Bona says. Plus, they are socially astute and take their ethical responsibilities very seriously indeed. This extends from understanding the provenance of the food they buy through to product quality. “Convenience stores have to evolve because Millennials are going to be the new face of our customers,” he says. Plus, they are influencing other generational groups. “Some of those attributes have had a trickle up effect so even older generations - baby boomers or generation x - are also now thinking about where their food comes from and are a lot more aware of the food that they buy,” Bona explains.

Freshpressions

Delivering a fresh offer is becoming critical too, according to Bona Design Lab’s recent research in markets across the US.

“Quality fresh offers can help move a brand from an on-the-go to a go-to destination,” Bona says. “The one thing that uniformly comes out in the research among all these groups is that people want to know where the food comes from. While they are happy for grab and go, they just don’t perceive it as fresh. That does not mean the offer has to be organic greens from John the farmer down the road but if they know it’s just been made or made with care and that day, then that reinforces that it’s fresh. We are seeing more work on developing fresh offers.”

Consumers also want to know they are eating healthier food, Bona reports. Freshly preparing food in front of shoppers provides cues that the food is healthy and that it’s customized to their exacting requirements.

“People want to be in control - they want it “my way, with less dressing, extra avocado and arugula”. It’s all about customization and being in control and stores can build an experience around providing customers healthier choices,” he says.

New players

Ahead of the Insight pre-NACS Show New York City Study Tour, Bona Design Lab highlighted some of the new, up and coming players on the convenience block. They include The Goods Mart, pitched as a new kind of destination where neighbours get to know each other while grabbing a real good coffee, a candy bar, a tasty sandwich, chips, or the essentials — eggs, toilet paper, and milk; Green Zebra Catering, which is on pace to build two dozen locations from and San Diego to Seattle by 2023 but the goal is 100; and Foxtrot in Chicago.

“While they don’t have a gas component attached to their offers they are convenience stores in the true sense of the word. Their focus is on really unique product offers such as customizable beverages and things that take convenience and lather it up to a better place via the ingredients they use etc,” he says.

“Convenience isn’t going away and a lot of people are trying to figure it out,” Bona asserts. “The CEOs of these new retail players want to redefine the landscape of convenience and give it a good reputation and name versus the bad reputations of gas station stores.”

It’s significant that Foxtrot, which began life as an online delivery service for college students, has subsequently added bricks and mortar stores and is looking to expand that footprint. Like other pure players branching onto the high street, Foxtrot has been able to combine the data from its digital business with a physical store presence. In Bona’s eyes it’s the combination of data collection and then tailoring offers specific to people both online and in bricks and mortar stores, that will make the winners stand out.

Elsewhere, traditional convenience retailers such as Sheetz, Wawa and QuikTrip are re-imagining their offers in a similar vein and adding more relevancy through online and digital loyalty programmes, touch screen ordering or digital menus.

“The top tier retailers are able to move a bit more quickly but many retailers are embracing a lot of these ideas and it will slowly trickle through the entire industry,” Bona says. “The digital world and bricks and mortar world are going to become seamless,” he says. The best competitors for online giants like Amazon will be those that meld aspects like frictionless online ordering, apps and click and collect but put them together in a way that makes complete sense, Bona maintains.

In the meantime, there are already some great examples of stores that are evolving into go-to destinations, such as Westmorland’s Gloucester Services site on the M5 in the UK. Opened in 2014, the site has its own Kitchens, serving homemade food; and a Farmshop, showcasing producers from around the county of Gloucestershire.

According to Bona, it harks back to the idea of fresh and where food comes from. “A lot of restaurants want to talk about farm to table. One thing that makes this store unique is that it’s farm to store. “The retail location and site design and the fact it’s supplied by local farmers makes it truly unique and and pretty spectacular,” he says. “It’s curated very well and there’s something very authentic about it.”

For Bona, Gloucester Services perfectly pitches that “what is old is new again” - a return to how people shopped at the beginning of the 20th century, visiting the butcher for meat, the baker for bread and greengrocer for fresh produce etc. “It’s those authentic experiences that are being recreated and that’s what people want,” he concludes.

Stats

Retailers saw consumers make one less trip per week to c-stores than in 2014, down to 2.6 vs. 3.6 visits

The good news is that foodservice sales overall in 2017 were $53.3 billion, accounting for 22.5% of in-store sales in 2017 and 33.9% of gross profit dollars.

The food-service category also was the biggest differentiator in terms of profits:

• top-quartile performers had prepared food sales that were 3.6 times greater than bottom-quartile stores

• coffee sales at top performers were 5.2 times greater that than those of the bottom quartile.

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Fiona BriggsFiona Briggs Freelance retail business journalist

Fiona is an experienced journalist and editor, writing exclusive content for GCSF. She is founder of retailtimes.co.uk. She contributes regularly to NACS Magazine and writes articles on omnichannel shopper trends for Radial. Fiona is available for commissions at fionalbriggs@gmail.com

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