The notion C-stores would knock on the door of quick-service market share isn’t a new one. On a grab-and-go, speed aim, the categories often share consumer profiles. Today, there are 148,026 C-stores in the U.S., of which 116,641 offer fuel, according to NACS. These sell an estimated 80 percent of the fuel purchased in the entire country.
In June, the nationwide average price for a gallon of gas hit $5 for the first time, per AAA. As Hustle points out, skyrocketing fuel prices don’t necessarily help gas stations. The average profit from gas is typically $0.03 to $0.07 per gallon. According to a study from NACS, 44 percent of customers go inside. Among those, one in three end up buying something to indulge on. Those goods account for about 30 percent of an average gas station’s revenue, but 70 percent of the profit. Gross margins on certain items, per Hustle, can be upward of 50 percent.
In a lot of ways, gas is beacon to get a guest to a C-store.
So given the climate, it’s fair to project they’re going to have to turn to other services to lure traffic. Food chief among them. 7-Eleven’s “Evolution Store,” which hit the market last April, featured two restaurants—Raise the Roost Chicken and Biscuit, and Parlor Pizza. All of the brand’s Evolution units include restaurant concepts (this was the first to boast two). At the time, executives said 7-Eleven expected to open “nearly 150” restaurants across the calendar.
Turning back, Colonel Sanders dished his first plate of chicken while operating a gas station in North Corbin, Kentucky.
The categories have shared threads for decades. But the main separator has long been one is touted as a complementary occasion more often than not (getting gas), and the other a direct daypart visit. Also, quick-serves offer the ability for guests to “fill up” without parking and walking in.
You also have to consider how the choice of walking in has become just that at C-stores—a choice. With card readers at the pump, the average time a customer spends at a gas station today is 2–3 minutes.
Customer arrival platform Bluedot recently released its first Convenience Experience Report, which explored consumer sentiment and the guest experience at gas stations and C-stores. It was based on survey data from more than 1,500 U.S. consumers.
The headline inside, “Are C-Stores the Next [Quick-Service Restaurant]” speaks to perception and what drives behavior, preferences, and loyalty. And how those triggers compare to fast food.
One reason this conversation is worth resurfacing is because of the convenience itself. Sixty-one percent of consumers in the report said they would visit a C-store more often if mobile ordering, drive-thru, and curbside pickup were available. Waiting in line when you walk inside, or seeing that through the door, has been a gap-setter between the two sectors historically.
Nearly half of Bluedot’s respondents said they would walk out of a C-store if one or two people were in line at the register (30 percent for two people and 16 percent if there’s one person in line). Fifty-four percent would turn away if they saw three people waiting to check out.
One in three added they’d drive away if there was a single car ahead of them at the pump.
Yet overall, 59 percent would consider purchasing a meal from a C-store when stopping for fast food.
One in four respondents said they visit C-stores for lunch. Of that, 29 percent do so for fast food (brands inside the location or proprietary setups, like 7-Eleven’s concepts); 27 percent eat grab-and-go refrigerated items; 25 percent hot food (like pizza or hot dogs, etc.); and 21 percent made-to-order food. Also, 51 percent drop in for snacks; 20 percent for grocery items; and 16 percent for alcoholic beverages.
Bluedot asked consumers how they pick their C-stores:
- Cheap gas: 56 percent
- Location: 52 percent
- Ease of entering and exiting: 37 percent
- Cleanliness: 25 percent
- High-quality gas: 25 percent
A full 83 percent of respondents noted they’re concerned with credit card fraud at the pump.
- Examine the card reader: 38 percent
- Would prefer to store their payment within the gas station’s mobile app: 34 percent
- Use one tap payments with their credit card: 28 percent
- Use Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay: 23 percent
And those digital screens at the pump don’t seem to be helping the purchasing journey along. Half of respondents said they look at their phone while pumping instead. Forty-seven percent called the adds “irrelevant;” 42 percent felt they were just being sold a product; 41 percent didn’t find the content interesting; and 30 percent called them “too loud.”
On the topic of price, if there was a more than 5-cent difference, consumers said they’d forgo loyalty points for gas that was less expensive. Twenty-five percent favored loyalty points over price.
If C-stores are truly going to threaten standalone quick-serves for visits, they’ll have to come further into this loyalty arena.
To win and retain customer loyalty, Bluedot said, C-stores should consider gas discounts. Fifty-four percent of consumers assumed they’d have to sign up for a credit card to receive them. The vast majority—76 percent—said they’d join a gas loyalty program, but it had to be free. Fifty-eight percent would do so if it was not connected to a credit card.
Seventy-percent noted they joined loyalty programs for gas discounts, yet only 44 percent actually receive such a perk.
Eighty-six percent said they’d download a gas app for discounts. Additional motivators included:
- Earn and track loyalty points: 57 percent
- Protects against credit card fraud: 40 percent
- Makes pumping gas faster and easier: 39 percent
- Track gas expenses and receipts: 34 percent
- Easy payment: 31 percent
And not unlike restaurants, a good chunk (25 percent) said they were ordering C-store items from third-party apps. If given the choice, however, two out of three preferred to use the C-store’s own app.
The overall theme is a blurring of lines. Restaurants have seen this within their own battleground as fast casuals tack on drive-thrus/pickup windows, add curbside, and some casual brands, like Applebee’s, follow suit as well. Full-serves, for that matter, from Friendly’s to P.F. Chang’s, are rolling out counter-service iterations. And all of it is coming closer through the disruption of mobile tech—the idea of being able to meet guests at the screen.
Sixty-two percent of Bluedot’s respondents said they’d visit a C-store more often if they could use the drive-thru or tap curbside, as mentioned before. Six in 10 were more likely to visit if the mobile app automatically unlocked the pump and allowed in-app payments.
Three in four consumers believed gas stations should start including charging stations for EVs, too.
Additionally, consumers want screens that display deals (37 percent); loyalty points and levels (37 percent); news and entertainment (30 percent); featured food items in the store (27 percent), and the ability to use secure payment already stored in the gas station’s mobile app (25 percent).
“The data supports what industry leaders have been saying for some time—C-stores are now competing head to head with [quick-service restaurants]. Clearly, the investments C-store brands have been making into foodservice initiatives are paying off,” Emil Davityan, Bluedot co-founder and CEO, said in a statement. “The data also strongly signals that there’s an opportunity for gas and C-store brands to do much more with loyalty programs and mobile strategies to boost retention, especially if discounts are determining consumer preferences and habits. It’s another page out of the restaurant industry’s playbook that could really level the playing field.”