It's not hard to guess the top-selling offerings at convenience stores.
Most people, given enough time to think it over, would probably correctly identify some items from a list that includes gasoline, cigarettes, beer, soda, candy and other snack foods.
But Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, summarized the channel's offerings in one word: "What convenience retailers are selling," he said, "is time."
Grab your lunch or breakfast while you are gassing up, and you've just bought yourself the few extra minutes it would have taken you to go somewhere else for that sandwich or cup of coffee. Why wait at the fast-food drive-through in the morning when you can pick up a newspaper, juice and bagel in one in-and-out stop at the local 7-Eleven or Circle K?
Is it any wonder the roadsides of America are dotted with c-store chains sporting names like Speedway, On the Run and QuikTrip?
As described in the feature story referenced on Page 1, these masters of time-saving have done an admirable job in their quest to capture more prepared-food sales. They have cleaned up their stores and learned to effectively leverage food-service brands distinct from the gasoline that is the backbone of their business.
One thing that convenience stores have not done with any great degree of success, however, is capture sales in the dinner daypart. In seeking to drive more evening business, they face the same challenges as many quick-service restaurant operators, who also tally most of their sales each day by the end of the lunch hour.
One reason is that consumers don't associate convenience stores and fast feeders with the level of quality they seek for the day's main meal. Another reason is that supermarkets have done a good job of filling the need for convenient dinner solutions.
Convenience stores, however, have a very compelling traffic driver in the evening with their fuel offering, and would like nothing more than to translate that into higher-margin food-service sales. Some have taken steps toward this goal by adding wine and offering more dinner items, and a few have a strong enough perception of quality and freshness to compete for consumers' dinner business.
But what if someone effectively combined the freshness of the supermarket with ease of shopping a convenience store on a wide scale to aggressively pursue evening sales?
Such a concept might even be called "Fresh & Easy," a name that has been reported to be among those Tesco is considering for its U.S. format, set to roll out in the Southwest next year. The company has been effective in the United Kingdom at selling prepared dinners and fill-in groceries at its Express and Metro stores, which are providing the model for its small-format U.S. debut.
It's certainly a concept that today's c-store operators, who have been strengthened by consolidation and are becoming more savvy marketers, will be watching closely.
Supermarkets may be the venue of choice today in the U.S. for provisioning the family dinner, but as Tesco and the operators of the nation's 140,000 c-stores know, America is the land of opportunity.