If your experiences are like a lot of C-store owners lately, your regular customers aren’t so “regular” anymore.
Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic early last year, odds are you’re seeing less of the people who used to come in around the same time every day for their morning coffee, breakfast sandwich or newspaper.
The lockdowns, work-from-home mandates, and extreme social distancing of spring 2020 have led to long-term shifts in customer patterns for many convenience stores.
Historically, around 20% of the most frequent C-store visitors came during the early morning, between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Perhaps you saw a similar pattern at your store. But pivoting work away from the office for the last year has meant that at many stores, the morning rush has slowed to a near-trickle, with lots of customers coming in less frequently — and at irregular times. There’s no need to be out the door by 8 a.m. if your “commute” consists of walking to your downstairs office and firing up the laptop.
Many former rush-hour regulars are now stopping by every few days. Instead of grabbing an early morning coffee and doughnut, they’re reaching for an afternoon sandwich or evening snack, and maybe an energy shot instead of a coffee.
These changes, whether temporary or permanent, don’t mean that your business can’t adapt to take advantage of the opportunities they offer. There are ways that you can reach customers, whether they’re staying at home or cautiously, occasionally venturing out. And now that vaccines are rolling out around the world, it’s hoped that more of the rhythms and familiar patterns of daily life will start to return sooner than later. But in the meanwhile, here are four ways that your store can adapt to this new normal, however long it lasts.
Offer curbside pickup
Even before the pandemic, grocery delivery services like Instacart and Shipt were popular with many consumers too busy to make weekly or even more frequent trips to the supermarket. These consumers would rather create a shopping list for someone else to handle than spend time selecting cantaloupes and cabbage. Then a professional shopper delivers it to the customer’s home.
However, such services aren’t cheap; annual memberships cost around $100, plus delivery fees on smaller orders. And orders typically must be placed several hours in advance. This is where your store has an advantage.
Offering curbside pickup is a great C-store alternative to grocery delivery services. Your customers likely already know the brands and items you carry. Advertise on social media that you make it easy for them to pick up essentials without ever leaving the car. Tell them orders can be placed over the phone or you can have them submit their shopping list through email. Stress that assembling an order won’t take all day.
Ask them to call or text you when they arrive. Then deliver the order to their vehicle.
Stock up on prepared foods and meals
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, consumers may still be reluctant to use self-service soda machines and coffee pots (and they may still be restricted in some communities). But many store owners are seeing increased interest in freshly prepared food options.
Sandwiches, frozen chicken and pizza, or even fresh salads and vacuum-sealed frozen steaks, can be excellent daylong offering alternatives to the morning grab-and-go staples of doughnuts and egg sandwiches. They’re ideal for a quick snack or full family dinner.
Provide home delivery
If you have the staff to handle it, consider offering grocery delivery to the neighborhoods around your store. It’s an in-demand service that you can perform better than the major grocery delivery companies. You know what you have in stock and it won’t take you hours to put an order together. Your customers will appreciate the time savings and the convenience.
Plus, with the markups that grocery delivery services add to many items, your store’s prices may be more competitive than you think. And you may offer items (alcohol, tobacco) that grocery stores don’t.
Since many customers are still shopping less often, consider stocking your best-selling staples in larger quantities. Think of carrying more “party-size” bags of chips or large bottles of soda instead of just single-serving containers and six-packs. Since some customers are still trying to limit their shopping trips, they’ll appreciate the plus-size options of their favorite drinks and snacks.
Addressing customer concerns and preferences is critical to being a successful C-store owner. Meeting customers wherever they’re at in their journey back to “normal” will help them remember your store as a good place to shop long after the pandemic fades away.