Kennedy: COVID’s impact on convenience stores

Categories: Business

Back in pre-COVID times, you might have stopped for a coffee-to-go at a convenience store on your drive to work. Or you might have grabbed a sandwich there after a sales call, figuring the quick in-and-out beat a lunchtime drive-thru.

But patterns changed as lockdowns took hold to curb the spread of COVID-19. Many of us started working from home, and our coffee and sandwiches came from the kitchen.

Data from Koupon Media put “fountain coffee” – the pour-your-own service – at No. 5 among the dozen top product trips to convenience stores in January. But it dropped to No. 8 in April – as commuting declined – recovering only to No. 7 by May.

Single-serve bagged chips, at No. 6 in January, dropped to No. 12 by March and all but disappeared as demand shifted from snack packs to bigger bags for at-home consumption, according to Koupon, a Texas-based firm that delivers mobile couponing for convenience stores and tracks shopper preferences.

Other data showed pandemic-spawned changes in “daypart” trends, the delineated times of day – overnight, morning commute, lunchtime, afternoon commute, evenings – used to measure convenience store sales.

Traditionally, the morning and lunch dayparts (6-10 a.m. and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) are “the most meaningful for c-store sales,” according to Koupon. But they took a big hit early in the lockdown, which “greatly impacted c-store retailers in sales, trips and gross margin.”

Charts published last month by Koupon show negative sales growth in the two dayparts in March and April, compared to 2019. Some recovery occurred in May before both dayparts went positive in June.

The afternoon commute (2-6 p.m.) and evening daypart (6 p.m. to midnight) still saw negative sales growth in June versus last year, but were not off nearly as much as they had been in March and April.

Locally, Stewart’s Shops, the homegrown convenience chain with more than 300 stores in New York and Vermont, felt the shifts as more people worked from home.

Commuter demand for hot coffee and food-to-go declined, “but the need for grocery and packaged items has increased,” spokeswoman Erica Komoroske told me in an email.

Stewart’s, which also sells gasoline, remained open as an “essential” business during the lockdown.

As demand rose for cleaning items and paper products, Stewart’s stocked more in its shops, Komoroske said. The company continues to monitor COVID-related demand and will make inventory changes accordingly.

“Business is good, but it’s not normal,” Komoroske said. Stewart’s is “carefully” adding back hot food items, subs and salads as offices and schools reopen.

While the lockdown slowed 2020 construction, Komoroske said Stewart’s is back on track for 20 shops this year, including 13 replacements and seven new stores.

Although some larger convenience chains, such as 7-Eleven and Wawa, are experimenting with COVID-inspired home delivery and drive-thru, Komoroske said Stewart’s has no plans for either at the moment.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]





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