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The national average price for a gallon of gasoline dropped below $2 this week. States continue to ramp up stay-at-home orders to ensure social distancing. The coronavirus outbreak has shifted typical American life and touched nearly every portion of our everyday activities.
Not excluded is the gas station, a fixture common on so many intersections and corners across the US. They rely largely on customers coming to fulfill one main need: put fuel in the tank. What's going on with the gas station/convenience store combo in the era of COVID-19?
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Roadshow reached out to the National Association of Convenience Stores and learned that sales are down — both at the pump and inside the associated convenience stores. These businesses are working to meet a different kind of demand for those stopping in, however.
"Convenience stores have always sold time to consumers. What's changed, at least for the short term, is how consumers are defining time," Jeff Lenard, vice president of NACS' strategic industry initiatives, tells Roadshow. "Convenience stores are quickly pivoting to offer different items to stay as relevant as possible during this pandemic."
That's left the local gas station to focus on more take-home meals, or stock up on cleaning supplies. Typically, the average convenience store focuses on "immediate consumption items," things people consume within an hour of purchase. Think gum, chips and pop. As the pandemic sweeps across the US, gas stations and their convenience stores are trying to maximize the one-stop-shop appeal as consumers limit trips.
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If a driver does stop for gas, convenience stores may now advertise bulk items or emphasize cleaning materials and toiletries. It's simply a matter of staying relevant. Without drivers motoring to work, driving to the mall or hitting the town to catch a movie at the theater, there's not much of a reason to grab that spur-of-the-moment candy bar or bag of sunflower seeds.
"We're already seeing an upswing in 12- and 18-pack beers, not necessarily because people are consuming more beer, but more because they want to maximize what they purchase every time they go out to a store," Lenard says.
When customers do pop in, the store might look different than they last remember. A majority of retailers have now closed any sit-down dining areas and almost half of convenience stores have limited access to self-serve parts of the store, such as fountain drinks and the place where hot dogs spin seemingly endlessly.
Will we see gas stations close entirely? The UK's Petrol Retailers Association warned it's a possibility across the pond, but here in the US, Lenard hasn't seen anything as drastic.
"We have not heard of many stores closing but certainly more are limiting hours of operation."