Doing business as a convenience retailer has always meant staying ingrained in the C-store space while simultaneously keeping pace with multiple other industries. It’s no easy task, but understanding the distinctions and overlaps between convenience retail and neighboring industries is a key to success in this highly competitive industry.
Achieving that perspective in the wake of pandemic-driven changes is, of course, easier said than done. As retail channels like grocery have increasingly relied on digital tactics, especially over the last 18 months in response to the pandemic, it’s clear that convenience retailers must find a way to keep pace and stay competitive. Online ordering, curbside pickup and fast delivery have become the norm across food retail, and consumers have begun to expect speed and convenience as part of those engagements — areas where C-stores once cornered the market, so to speak.
Convenience retailers now face a difficult question: Given that their model is based on expediency, a level of specialization and, well, convenience, can C-stores afford not to invest in changes that maintain their current customer-value proposition?
Matching this new digital landscape will be no small task for the convenience retail industry, particularly for independent C-stores. With fewer resources and more constrained operating budgets, independents may feel they lack the flexibility to make investments in digital technology. For those retailers that decide to invest, a significant and rapid return on investment will likely be an expectation.
With that in mind, any solutions geared toward enabling smaller retailers to participate in digital trends such as consumer apps, loyalty programs and online ordering must prioritize what independents care most about: cost, ease of use and ROI. At the same time, these innovations fall flat if they aren’t serving the needs of C-store consumers — many of whom are suddenly interested in online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery — offerings that most had never considered pre-pandemic.
Still, there are several equalizers for independent convenience retailers that should be noted. C-stores now have better access to real-time data via enhancements to backend software, technology platforms and consumer apps. With more and better insights into consumer behavior — including visibility into top-selling products and other in-store trends — convenience retailers can now make informed adjustments and compete with larger chains in new ways. With data that supports the design of promotional programs, cross-selling opportunities and upsells, C-stores have the tech to drive revenue and increase customer satisfaction through personalized and more relevant offerings.
As smaller C-stores look to grow strategically, these retailers might focus efforts on building customer loyalty programs. Whether this is accomplished through a proprietary app, a data dashboard or data-driven, brand-funded promotion, customers are far more likely to stick around if they feel their specific needs are being met.
Digitization is here to stay, and its effects have only accelerated since the outset of the pandemic. That can work for or against independent C-stores. Ultimately, their success adapting to these changes will hinge on effective reporting, analysis and data activation, and finding the right partners that understand their unique business challenges.
Jake Bolling is the co-founder and CEO of Skupos Inc., a technology platform that connects the independent convenience retail industry. Prior to founding Skupos, he owned a consumer-packaged goods company that distributed to the convenience retail industry. Bolling recognized a lack of data across the convenience retail space and sought to change that with Skupos. In 2019, Bolling was named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list.