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Customer Experience

How Convenience Stores are Elevating Customer Experience in 2024

An aisle at a convenience stores contains snacks on the left wall and refrigerated items ahead and to the right. Customer experience in convenience stores has become a critical differentiator.

Expectations have traditionally lingered somewhat low for customer experience in convenience stores.

People generally want some gas, maybe a soda or a snack, followed by a quick exit. If they’re on the road, a bathroom would be nice – better yet if it’s clean.

No more.

With competition growing from grocery chains, dollar stores, and other retailers, magnified by an emphasis on brick-and-mortar customer experience post-pandemic, “convenience store customers have evolved and are looking for retailers to meet their new, heightened expectations,” according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Not surprisingly, that means customer experience is more vital than ever.

“As the retail landscape becomes increasingly competitive, creating memorable customer experiences in c-stores is crucial for sustaining customer loyalty and driving business growth,” says one convenience store industry food service provider.

While a recent survey showed that only 44 percent of U.S. consumers are highly satisfied with their convenience store experiences, plenty of stores are scrambling to stand out. They are focusing on the basics of cleanliness and speed but also going beyond.

Examples include remodeling locations, boosting lighting, employing technology and offering plenty of food – fresh food, homemade food, even food delivered to customers.

Some are even trying to make the experience fun, providing walk-in “beer caves” separated from the rest of the store and stocked with beer and wine.

Bait In the Midwest And A Cult Following In The East

Cenex convenience stores, for example, are amping up the experience by pouring $150 million into the LIFT (Lighting, Image, and Facility Transformation) initiative, transforming more than 1,300 stores across 19 states.

“In order for us to continue to keep the Cenex brand strong and relevant to consumers, we have to meet our retailers where their competition is, which is offering better in-store amenities, better foodservice programs and brighter, more modern stores,” said Akhtar Hussain, director of refined fuels marketing for parent company CHS Inc.

Since the stores are locally owned and deeply rooted in their communities, Cenex infused the changes with a smart local touch. In Merrill, Wisconsin, that meant adding a bait shop for fishing trips as part of an in-store upgrade, while another Wisconsin location began offering local meat, cheese, and maple syrup.

Other store brands are doubling down on what they have traditionally done well.

Wawa, a northeastern U.S. chain, has gained what some call a “cult following” for clean bathrooms, high-quality coffee, and creative food offerings that have made it “a special place where ‘down the shore’ carries a deep and familiar meaning to the Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey locals who know the beach day roadside pitstop.”

“This place has everything,” one customer told a reviewer. “Coffee, sandwiches, chicken strips, donuts, elaborate milkshakes, 24/7 availability, gas, people watching, and best of all, the gobbler” – a special Thanksgiving seasonal menu.

“Wawa has it all – coffee shop with decent espresso and other fun drinks, made-to-order food that tastes better than many fast food chains, and it is clean and bright with outdoor seating,” added Wawa fan Lisa Knight in an interview with The Experience Maker. “It is THE hangout for my young adult sons. They go almost every night with friends and hang out for hours!”

Convenience Stores Date Back To Ice In Texas

Things were a little simpler back in 1927 when “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green decided to expand the Southland Ice Dock in Oak Cliff, Dallas by selling milk, bread, and eggs in addition to ice.

Seeing potential, the Southland Ice Company extended hours at various stores from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and in 1946 renamed those stores…7-Eleven.

The modern convenience store was thus created, and the concept expanded over time and moved toward 24-hour retailing with cultural shifts such as the interstate highway system and Americans’ later working hours.

Today, more than 152,000 convenience stores operate in the United States, selling about 80 percent of the motor fuel. Texas has the most convenience stores.

Customer Experience Examples In Convenience Stores

It is Texas-based Buc-ee’s that recently came in first, for the second consecutive year, in a national ranking of the top 300 brands for customer experience. That’s all brands, not just convenience stores.

According to the survey, travelers appreciate Buc-ee’s for the cleanliness and large selection of products and food. The chain boasts enormous stores and strategic locations between major cities.

“I’ve never seen a convenience store associated with shopping for gas that has artwork for sale in the entrance to the bathrooms – it’s like walking through an art gallery just to use the toilet,” commented one customer.

What some have called a foodie’s paradise offers everything from freshly made fudge to a jerky wall and a barbecue counter called Texas Roundup featuring Buc-ee’s signature barbecued brisket.

Also highly ranked in customer experience surveys is the Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, a Midwestern cultural phenomenon that has gained kudos for its own recently revamped food service, offering Kitchen Cravings Take Home Meals.

“We’re talking BBQ ribs, beef stroganoff, and even a roasted turkey dinner with stuffing and mashed potatoes,” wrote one hungry reviewer.

Kwik Trip’s savvy use of social media platforms is part of an increasing embrace of technology that is further shaking up the traditional convenience store model.

Enmarket, a convenience store chain based in the southern United States, launched a mobile payment app to drive “convenience for our customers,” while many stores are moving beyond “grab and go” by offering home delivery of food or even liquor, often in partnership with food delivery apps such as DoorDash. The trend began even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even old favorite 7-Eleven, still by far the nation’s largest convenience retail chain, is changing with the times. The chain is planning to roll out a “store refresh program” to more than 4,000 stores, featuring improvements to exteriors along with updated food, coffee, and baked goods.

They better not mess with those Slurpees though!

Photo by Khuc Le Thanh Danh on Unsplash